MONTEREY — The Golden Age of broadcasting is on its way unless lawmakers rein in the free-market forces that the Federal Communications Commission has unleashed over the past seven years, the chairman of the federal regulatory agency said Monday.
Dennis Patrick, 35, promised California broadcasters that the era of deregulation of their industry is not over, despite a noticeable drive toward re-regulation on Capitol Hill.
"Beware the re-regulators," he told about 500 television and radio executives gathered for the semiannual California Broadcasters Assn. conference here.
Patrick didn't mention anyone in Congress by name, but since the Democrats took control of it this year, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has made no secret of his interest in reimposing broadcast regulations through the House telecommunications subcommittee that he chairs.
Patrick, looking every bit the California surfer despite a gray business suit, said the FCC, under his 4-month-old chairmanship, may mull over issues longer before acting, but it has not abandoned the deregulation-minded, free-market philosophy that it had under his predecessor, former FCC Chairman Mark Fowler.
"In my view, we have tried to do too much with too little information," Patrick said in his only acknowledgment of criticism that the FCC has been overzealous in dismantling its own regulatory structure.
The FCC's lack of technical expertise and knowledge of local programming needs was a recurring theme in Patrick's keynote address. He said these shortcomings were another reason for deferring to individual broadcasters.
Quoting Plato, Patrick pointed out that Socrates was said to be wise because he "knew he couldn't know what other men thought he could."
Following Patrick's speech, three former FCC chairmen--Charles Ferris, E. William Henry and Robert E. Lee--discussed 30 years of broadcast regulation. Their views of how tough the agency ought to be varied widely.
Ferris, chairman under President Jimmy Carter, warned against the FCC involving itself in matters of obscene speech, and condemned the elimination of the so-called "anti-trafficking rule" under the current FCC.
He said that eliminating the rule, which required broadcasters to hold a license for a minimum of three years before putting it up for sale, has also eliminated a sense of responsibility on the part of those broadcasters who are more interested in a quick profit than in serving the public interest.
Though he did not take as radical a stance against deregulation as Ferris, Henry, who was appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower, was not convinced that a completely laissez faire, free-market philosophy ought to be followed by the commission.
"If you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they still couldn't make a decision," Henry said. "Still, it might be a good idea."
Patrick had no comment on the FCC's looming problem with the issue of indecent broadcasting, chiefly because the National Assn. of Broadcasters and several other broadcast organizations are demanding that the commission re-examine its April decision to alter its obscenity guidelines. Until a decision has been made on the petition, Patrick said that he believed comment would be unwise.
But Ferris, Henry and Lee, FCC chairman under President John F. Kennedy, all had very specific opinions about indecency.
Ferris, under whose chairmanship the obscenity guidelines were drawn in 1978, said that obscene broadcasts ought to be referred to the U.S. attorney general and not left to the FCC for judgment. Lee said that the FCC ought to deal with specific complaints of obscenity or indecency on a case-by-case basis rather than attempting to define what neither the Department of Justice nor the Supreme Court has been able to define over the past 50 years.