Quieting the FCC

Posted: Mar 12, 2004 12:00 AM

When is the next time we?ll see a nipple on broadcast television? Or hear the f-word at an awards show? Not anytime soon.
So why are Congress and the Federal Communications Commission putting so much time and effort into cracking down on obscenity and profanity on the airwaves? Because, by definition, lawmakers exist to pass laws, and regulators exist to issue rules.

 But the lawmakers and the regulators are on the wrong path. They?re spending time and federal treasure addressing a problem that?s already been solved by the much more efficient free market.

 Let?s consider the Janet Jackson situation. After she exposed herself at the Super Bowl, angry lawmakers held hearings. They chewed out Viacom president Mel Karmazin (his company owns CBS). The House of Representatives voted to increase the maximum fine for televised bad behavior from $27,500 per violation to a maximum of $500,000.

 All well and good, but what is next year?s halftime show going to look like? Perhaps it?ll feature a duet by Dolly Parton and LeAnn Rimes. Or maybe a battle between the Universities of Arizona and Michigan bands, as at Super Bowl I. However, one thing we?re all sure won?t happen is another ?wardrobe malfunction.?

 As NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said last month, ?we will change our policy, our people and our processes for managing the halftime entertainment in the future in order to deal far more effectively with the quality of this aspect of the Super Bowl.? And not because of any laws or rules -- but because ?[this year?s] show was offensive, inappropriate and embarrassing to us and our fans.? In other words, the NFL realizes American consumers won?t stand for further exposure.

 The same thing holds with televised obscenity. Rock star Bono dropped the f-bomb at the 2003 Golden Globe awards and got off scot-free. That?s one of the reasons lawmakers want to increase the fines.

But where?s the need? This year?s Grammy Award and Academy Award shows were broadcast on a delay, so any naughty words could be bleeped. And all future award shows will surely be treated the same way.
We?re as likely to hear someone curse as we are to see an unattractive woman win best actress -- which is to say, it won?t happen.

All because the broadcasters realize consumers don?t want to hear offensive words on prime-time television.

Americans do, however, seem to want to hear them on the radio. Or at least a large segment of the population does. Hence, the popularity of ?shock jocks,? especially Howard Stern.

The FCC wants these jocks to shut up. So, according to The Wall Street Journal, Viacom?s Infinity Broadcasting unit, Emmis Communications and Clear Channel Communications could all face heavy fines because of off-color language from their personalities.

But as the Journal observed, ?broadcasters have been willing to take the risk of FCC heat for Stern?s show because they make a lot of money off it.? And that?s the key. You can fight city hall, as long as you?re willing to pay the fines. But you can?t fight the free market. Listeners will get what they want.

What the FCC ought to do is encourage the free market, instead of trying to regulate it.

Once upon a time, federal regulations allowed a company to own only two radio stations, one AM and one FM, in each market. That made for plenty of competition. Today, the regulations have been relaxed to the point that, in some markets, one company can own as many as eight stations, and can corner a local radio market. Clear Channel, for instance, owns six of the eight radio stations in Minot, S. D. There, Clear Channel competes only with itself.

The government has always regulated station ownership. After all, there are only a limited number of frequencies. And starting a radio station isn?t like opening a coffee shop. In addition to the frequency, you also need tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment -- microphones, a broadcast tower, recording devices, and so forth.

The FCC should limit the number of stations a company can own in a market. That will bring in more owners and foster more competition, which is the backbone of the free market. It will also increase the chances that broadcasters will counter-program -- that is, put non-offensive programming up against the Howard Stern?s of the world.

It?s only public demand, not FCC regulation, that can ?clean up? the airways.