Analysis: Indecency battle lines grow

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  May 6, 2005 at 6:55 PM
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LOS ANGELES, May 6 (UPI) -- Like the Galactic Senate in "Star Wars" assembling an army to do battle with Count Dooku's separatists, major U.S. media companies are putting together an army of lobbyists to fight the current push for more federal regulation of broadcast content -- an army made up of a relatively rare blend of liberal and conservative interest groups.

The new organization is called the TV Watch Coalition, and its mission is to serve as a counterweight to those who are instigating for a government crackdown on broadcast indecency. TV Watch is made up of the parent companies of CBS, Fox and NBC, as well as the American Conservative Union, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Tax Reform, the Creative Coalition, the Center for Creative Voices in Media and others.

The American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce share several common interests -- most of them on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

The Creative Coalition is a non-profit, non-partisan group sponsored by entertainment-industry professionals advocating for freedom of expression and First Amendment rights. The Center for Creative Voices in Media is governed by a board that includes Oscar-winning filmmaker Warren Beatty; Peabody- and Emmy-winning writer-producer Tom Fontana; Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Frank Pierson; and former Writers Guild of America West President Victoria Riskin.

Given Hollywood's reputation being as monolithically liberal -- deserved or not -- both organizations qualify as liberal-minded.

The collaboration between conservatives and liberals on TV Watch is unusual, if not unprecedented.

What brings them together is a shared interest in persuading the public -- and therefore the public's representatives in Washington, D.C. -- that more parental control over children's media consumption is preferable to more government regulation of programming.

At a news conference in Washington announcing the campaign, TV Watch Executive Director Jim Dyke said this week that the coalition "speaks for most Americans today ... who want to protect their favorite shows from censorship."

To support that contention, the coalition released polling results indicating the public prefers personal responsibility to government regulation. The polling was even done by a bipartisan team -- Peter D. Hart Research Associates is normally associated with the Democratic Party and the Luntz Research Cos. usually work for Republicans.

They reported that 86 percent of those surveyed said parental involvement is the best way to control what kids see, while 11 percent favored more government control. They also said that 91 percent agreed "some people will always be able to find something on the television or radio that offends them ... but the sensitivities of a few should not dictate the choices for everyone else."

Among the coalition's members, the TV networks have the greatest stake in the campaign to resist further government regulation of broadcast content. NBC Universal (NBC), News Corp. (Fox) and Viacom Inc. (CBS) have so far provided the only funding for TV Watch.

Dyke wouldn't say how much money the networks have on the table. According to Broadcasting & Cable magazine, a leading critic of broadcast content -- Parents Television Council President L. Brent Bozell -- said TV Watch was just a hired gun.

Bozell -- well-known as an activist for conservative causes -- even criticized the American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform for participating in the coalition. He said neither group had ever "given a moment's thought to the suffocating sewage coming from the entertainment industry."

To a significant extent, the participation by the coalition's members can be seen as motivated by political ideals -- including the small-government principles of the conservatives and the free-speech commitment of the creative organizations. However, even for those members, there is an economic component to the argument.

Their economic interest may not be as momentous as that of the major TV networks, but it is there nevertheless.

The Chamber of Commerce has never been partial to the government imposing restrictions on business, and certainly not on one of the biggest industries in America: broadcasting.

The artists and producers who make their living providing content would doubtless feel a deeper chill with every step the government takes toward cracking down on content. And in a very real sense, such a crackdown might tend to limit their economic opportunities by limiting the subject matter and means of expression that they could feel free to explore in their work.

In any case, public and political pressure on broadcasters over the indecency issue seems to be having an effect.

The cable industry announced recently that it would increase its use of onscreen content ratings. And NBC said last week it would abandon its longstanding refusal to air content descriptors -- onscreen cues that notify V-Chips, built into TV sets, regarding a program's sexual, violence, language and other content.

It's possible that the broadcasters would have taken those steps on their own -- even without the public and political pressure that had been building over the past few years and seemed to come to a head when Janet Jackson flashed a breast during the Super Bowl halftime show.

It's possible. But it doesn't seem too likely.


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