On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it was fining a broadcaster for showing pornographic images on the publicly-owned airwaves. This victory was the result of many years of unceasing effort by the PTC.
Once upon a time (and not that long ago), it would have been unthinkable for broadcasters – who make billions of dollars a year in profit by using public property (the airwaves) for free – to air pornography, graphic sex, and explicit language in front of children. But the 1996 Telecommunications Act took the responsibility for what is shown on TV away from the broadcasters where it belongs, and instead unfairly forced parents to assume the burden of trying to protect their kids from overwhelming, all-encompassing media.
This is totally illogical. Nobody says, “If you don’t want your kids drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or using heroin, it’s YOUR job to keep them away from it!” while allowing liquor stores and drug dealers to set up shop in front of elementary schools. Instead, there are laws against selling alcohol or tobacco products to minors (and illegal drugs to anyone). In fact, since 1971, cigarette advertising has been ILLEGAL on TV! Similarly, if a chemical factory was dumping toxic waste into a public reservoir, the Environmental Protection Agency wouldn’t shrug and say, “If you don’t want your children being poisoned, don’t let them drink the water. That’s YOUR problem, not ours!”
The same attitude should apply to those who use the public airwaves. Unfortunately, for many years the FCC has looked the other way as TV content became more and more explicit. Thankfully, this week they took action – and it’s been two decades’ worth of relentless PTC activism that has encouraged them to do so.
In the wake of the 1996 Telecom Act, it was the PTC that urged citizens to begin filing indecency complaints with the FCC, holding the government accountable for enforcing the law (and the concept of broadcast decency has been settled law in the US since 1927). After Janet Jackson’s public striptease during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, the PTC pressed Congress to pass a law increasing the fines for indecency from a paltry $30,000 to $325,000. And the law was passed…by a margin of 10-1 in the House, and unanimously by the Senate.
Defeated by the Congress and the President, the entertainment industry turned to the third branch of government. Every time it was fined for airing patently indecent material, the networks would appeal the fine and tie the case up in court, sometimes for up to ten years. But in 2012, thanks again to the PTC’s activism and “friend of the court” briefs, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the FCC DOES have the right to enforce the law, and that it CAN fine broadcasters who break that law. The networks wanted the courts to declare all attempts to regulate indecent content unconstitutional. This would have given the networks the “right” to air any amount of indecent content, at any time of day, no matter how many children were in the audience.
A final hurdle was cleared in 2013, when then-chairman of the FCC Julius Genachowski stated that, going forward, the government would only fine “egregious” examples of indecency – whatever “egregious” meant (and Genachowski wasn’t telling anybody). Once again, the PTC leapt into action, urging the American people to make their voices heard. As a result, over 100,000 Americans wrote to the FCC telling them to keep the old standards of indecency enforcement in place, and urging the government to take action against the entertainment industry’s flagrant breaking of the law.
This week marked the first time in seven years a broadcaster has been fined for indecent content. It’s an encouraging first step; but there are still hundreds of thousands of complaints from the American people waiting to be acted upon– and we will do our utmost to see that the FCC acts.
We hope the broadcast networks will finally heed the voices of millions of families who want better media choices for their children – but if they don’t, we will continue to hold the networks accountable for violating the law; hold advertisers accountable for the content of programs they choose to sponsor; and hold the FCC responsible for enforcing the law.