The Super Bowl used to mean two things to the majority of us: Commercials and the inevitable analysis of the commercials the following day. Yes, there was a football game and a half-time show featuring either an aging '70s has-been rocker or Britney Spears's little sister's best friend's brother-in-law. But it's the commercials you remember. Whether you preferred those Budweiser lizards or Bob Dole's "makeover" as a creep and a pimp-to-be, the game, for most of us, was never that important. But this year, something even more exciting awaits us the day after: The Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) rebuke of anything and everything that is not "decent."
I do profess some respect for the myriad of difficulties faced by the FCC; regulating the public airwaves without imposing any form of censorship is a nearly impossible dictum. Both the Internet and the development of cable television have had profound impact on what can and cannot be shown on network television; radio has faced similar dilemmas with the rising popularity of satellite radio, the equivalent of a pay-cable service. Regulation is thus presented with further difficulties in such a rapidly evolving, media-centric age. But this evolution and the problems it presents are not justifications for the FCC's current attitude toward media regulation.
Under Michael Powell, the current chairman of the FCC who recently announced his resignation, such regulations have moved from somewhat necessary, though often overreaching, to self-imposed censorship by major broadcasting networks and a barely heard and rarely exerted cry from the left. Last year's wardrobe malfunction aside, most of the recent incidents which have prompted FCC investigation, and often penalties, only became widespread knowledge after the FCC either threatened the networks with such an "investigation" or proclaimed that "complaints had been voiced." By expanding its role into a federal media militia, Powell and company have created an autocratic institution that has no place in our federal government.
A few incidents that have drawn significant media attentionand would not have resulted in similar punditry several years agoinclude a planned broadcast of Saving Private Ryan and a Monday Night Football promotion that actually aired. In the case of the Spielberg film, the decision of ABC's affiliates to pull the movie from airing was not a result of any official warning from the FCC, but simply out of fear of retribution. With regards to the football promotion, all I can say is that far "worse" things, according to the FCC's definitions, are on TV, even the "sacred" 8 to 9 p.m. "family" hour. Recent firings of "controversial" DJs on both local and syndicated radio programming may have drawn less attention, but such incidents shed light on the same problems: vague policies of the FCC and impulsive, for-profit, knee-jerk responses from the media monopolies.
The current regulations by the FCC have thus brought a rather interesting effect. Slowly but surely, mass media is censoring itself to the point that any programming on television or radio that could possibly be interesting, informative, or artisticin other words, not Who Wants to Marry the Swan's Survivor on Temptation Island?is relegated to cable television or satellite radio. Obviously, the standards for these pay-media services are different, but we seriously need to consider what damage Saving Private Ryan will cause, especially considering that the networks had no qualms about airing an entire season of Wife Swap.
Eminem, of all people, foretold of our current situation several years ago, proclaiming that "the FCC won't let me be or let me be me." Powell's resignation will hopefully lead to changes in the FCC, changes that affect not only the staff, but also the current attitude toward media regulation. We need a chair interested in creating policies that will regulate and advise without censoring or blacklisting. Will the right FCC chair please stand up?