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THE DECENCY DEBATE

The zipping point

Vulgarity overload is creating a critical mass of alliances that target big media along with bad taste. It's not a pure liberal-versus-conservative issue anymore -- and therein lies hope.

March 28, 2004|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

At age 63, having spent most of the last two decades immersed in Washington politics, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps isn't much of a hipster when it comes to identifying the hot hip-hop groups or cool late-night TV shows. But even he's figured out that pop culture consumers young and old believe something has gone horribly wrong when it comes to the diversity of choices in today's entertainment programming. Copps was in the car the other day with his youngest son, a high school senior, watching the teenager click the radio dial over and over, trying in vain to find a decent music station.

"After a minute or so, he said to me, 'What's wrong with radio? There's nothing good on at all,' " Copps recalls. "When we went on a trip to look at colleges, he brought along a stack of CDs. He had no interest in the radio. He said, 'I don't like what they play.' "

All too many of us have said the same thing, either about radio, television or the movies. The much-heralded 500-channel universe has turned out to be more of a mirage than an oasis. Of the 91 major cable TV networks available in at least 16 million homes, 80% are owned or co-owned by just six media giants. Since May 2001, when he joined the FCC, Copps had been something of a lonely voice in the wilderness, waging an uphill battle against the onslaught of both vulgar programming and media consolidation. Then came the Super Bowl, complete with sexist beer ads, erectile dysfunction commercials and a crotch-grabbing, MTV-produced halftime show that culminated in Janet Jackson's infamous breast baring.

A storm of protest erupted. It was followed by the now-familiar election-year Washington kabuki dance, featuring fulminating politicians, contrite media conglomerate moguls and flustered NFL officials -- even FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has consistently avoided criticizing Big Media companies, declared himself outraged by the events. If anyone had a right to gloat, it would be Copps, a former history professor who rarely watches TV, listens to NPR and has all the charisma of, well, Dick Cheney. The Super Bowl fiasco, followed by headline grabbing congressional hearings and hefty FCC fines against several radio raunchmeisters has offered a timely spotlight for Copps' pet issues -- media consolidation and indecency on the airwaves.

"The FCC has been a paper tiger, so in a way we're largely responsible for the media companies' race to the bottom," Copps says. "When the industry saw we had no interest in pursuing any real indecency enforcement, they figured we must have zero credibility. We've now finally taken some action, but I don't know if we're really walking the walk or just talking the talk. I'll believe we're serious about indecency when we send a couple of the more serious cases to a license revocation hearing."

Copps' linkage of indecency with media consolidation isn't just based on a wild hunch. According to internal FCC data, since the government's Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened the doors for a vast expansion of local radio and TV ownership by media conglomerates, the growth of media consolidation has been closely followed by a steep rise in indecency complaints. In 2000, the first year of available statistics, there were only 111 indecency complaints reported to the FCC. In 2003, there were 240,342 complaints. Complaints this year have already passed the 500,000 mark. As anyone who has ever tried to get a cable company on the phone will attest, media conglomerates largely operate at a safe distance from the communities they service, while locally owned broadcasters have to defend their programming choices at the local grocery store. And under relentless pressure from Wall Street stock analysts, big media companies regularly succumb to all sorts of odious short-term ratings gimmickry to boost quarterly earnings reports. It's hardly a surprise that 80% of recent FCC indecency fines have gone to DJs working for two conglomerates, Clear Channel Communications and Infinity Broadcasting.

Unusual alliances

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the consolidation-decency debate is how it has managed to bridge the country's nasty Al Franken versus Bill O'Reilly, red state versus blue state partisan divide. The FCC's controversial ruling last June to allow media giants even greater sway over showbiz programming was opposed not only by Copps and fellow Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein but by the conservative Parents Television Council, the NRA, various civil rights groups, Common Cause, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and NOW. "This isn't a liberal or conservative cause," says Parents Television Council Executive Director Tim Winter. "The political alliances on this issue are extraordinary."

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