Who are these people who write letters to the FCC about sexually suggestive programming that's aired after their children are supposed to be in bed? Read this now. Put all First Amendment issues to the side for a minute. If broadcasting over the public airwaves is going to be held hostage by a vocal microcommunity of people who are offended by the mere suggestion of sex, add this one to the top of the pile of reasons why terrestrial television and radio are DEAD, DEAD, DEAD.
Okay, now let's talk about the First Amendment issues...
One of my biggest fears is that, under the guise of "protecting" us from offensive or indecent material, the federal government turns the public airwaves into a "substance-free zone," in which broadcasters are afraid to disseminate information of any sort of value, or host any sort of debate about public affairs. Clearly, the government has exercised no prior restraint of content, but this scenario can easily become reality even in the absence of prior restraint. Levying huge and unreasonable fines will suffice. And that's exactly what we have here. Network affiliates are afraid to broadcast "Saving Private Ryan" out of fear of the mere possibility of being fined. Everything's being tape-delayed in case someone says or does something offensive. Shows like Howard Stern's may be offensive to some, but the bigger offense, to me, is that such a show can't exist on the public airwaves because it might end up paying out more in FCC fines than it gets from advertisers. Our content is being sanitized.
Before we all get up in arms and declare democracy dead because of the usurping of the power of the press, let's put some thought into this. Yes, Michael Powell (last seen trying to remove the Invisible Conceptual Idiot Baton from his forehead) and the FCC enjoy too much influence over content carried on the public airwaves. But why?
It's because the concept of "public airwaves" is completely outdated. Let me say that again, because it's very important, with appropriate emphasis:
The concept of "public airwaves" is completely fucking outdated.
You see, back in the day, terrestrial radio and television stations had only a narrow strip of bandwidth on which to broadcast. So the federal government had to issue a limited number of licenses in each terrestrial market to ensure that the signals didn't interfere with one another. Since a limited number of broadcasters could exist at any given time in any given market, the feds took it upon themselves to ensure that each station was serving the public interest. In other words, give us the time and temperature, test out the Emergency Broadcast System every so often, and give us a holler if there's a tornado coming over the horizon.
From there, the concept evolved into this notion of "community standards" with respect to indecency and obscenity. But the FCC's mandate stems from a need to have only a limited number of broadcast outlets serve the public interest. That's where it comes from.
Does this apply in a world where bandwidth is limited to a much lesser extent? Hell no! Consumers have all sorts of other media choices available to them: Cable television, satellite television, satellite radio, the web, the Internet, video on demand, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum. The only thing the FCC's influence has succeeded at is placing stations that still occupy the "public" airwaves at a commercial disadvantage in comparison to all these other media.
So, really, it's time to put the FCC in its rightful place - issuing and maintaining broadcast licenses. If we don't do this, not only will we see continued erosion of First Amendment rights, but we'll also see broadcasters losing shitloads of money as more people opt to pay $5.95 a month to see boobies at the Bada Bing on HBO than watch Ted Koppel for free.
The FCC should be in the business of licensing, and that's about it. And if we can't solve the problem through exerting political pressure on Michael Powell and his crew, maybe we should take it to Congress.
We need an FCC. After all, if we were to completely privatize public bandwidth, we'd have so many crossed signals that nothing electronic would work. But the FCC needs to stay out of the content business. It should stay in the bandwidth licensing business where it belongs.