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FCC May Just Regulate Itself Out of Existence



Fcclogo There are two lawsuits involving the Federal Communications Commission worth watching for those who care about the future of TV -- and the future of government power to regulate its operation.

The first, filed by Fox, ABC, CBS and later NBC, asks the Supreme Court not to consider the government's appeal of a lower court decision invalidating fines for "fleeting expletives" -- or curse words said unexpectedly by Cher and Nicole Riche during live broadcasts. The lower court found the FCC was inconsistent in fining broadcasters for such language -- allowing such cursing in a network TV broadcast of the film Saving Private Ryan for instance -- but fining Fox for an impromptu utterance by a celebrity.

Networks1I have said before that the FCC runs the danger of having a court remove its power to regulate TV content at all by picking such stupid fights. Indeed, NBC is arguing that the agency shouldn't have the power to regulate broadcast content at all because the rise of other media platforms such as cable TV and the Internet make salacious material easily available in other places.

The second lawsuit was filed by big cable channels such as the Discovery Channel and C-SPAN -- is there anyone who actually likes the FCC's decisions? -- resisting rules forcing cable companies to carry the analog and digital channels of broadcast stations for three years after the industry switches to digital TV in February 2009.

The litigants say the order reduces space for cable channels, which would love to have multiple channels on crowded cable systems. The FCC says the cable industry is threatening to unravel the already-bumpy switch to digital broadcasting planned next year, by reneging on its pledge to carry both digital and analog signals for a while, so consumers have time to buy digital-capable televisions.

Cabletv The real fear is that cable systems will not simulcast smaller broadcasters in their market -- or, in our case, the many channels offered by our two PBS affiliates -- effectively removing them from some subscribers dials when the digital switch takes place next year.

This is a good fight for the FCC, which should work hard to make this boneheaded digital switch as painless as possible for the public. But a negative ruling here will make it tough for the agency to referee what is sure to be a messy and confusing process for viewers.

As a bonus, here's the scene which recently earned ABC a $1.4-million fine from the FCC -- levied for an episode aired five years ago on a show which has been off the air for years. You decide if the punishment fits the crime.   

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:43pm]


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