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CU Urges Congress to Reconsider the Lax FCC Ownership Rules in Light of Super Bowl Halftime Incident

February 4, 2004
Dear Representative:
As the public backlash grows over Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show, we urge you to once again consider the implications of the FCC’s rules to relax limits on media ownership. These rules, which would allow more consolidation among media giants, should trouble us all because of the direct impact they will have on healthy democratic debate and local community values.
One of the best checks against broadcasters who go too far for the tastes of many Americans remains the newspaper. As the attached letters from yesterday’s New York Times and Washington Post illustrate, people can freely express their opinions about the Super Bowl halftime show precisely because these newspapers are independent from the broadcast giants. In the past, such companies were prohibited from owning both the dominant newspaper and broadcast outlets in a community. Do we really think that community values and democratic debate would be better served if giant media conglomerates like Viacom – the owner of CBS and MTV, the offending parties in Sunday’s debacle – were also allowed to buy up local newspapers in communities where they own broadcast stations? Yet that is exactly what the FCC’s new media ownership rules would permit. Therefore, we urge you to support H.J. Res. 72, which would overturn these rules.
On a final note, the Super Bowl halftime show has underscored the problem surrounding the FCC’s inability to fine indecent content on cable and satellite TV, pay services which reach more than 85 percent of American homes. Historically, the FCC has clear powers to challenge free, over-the-air broadcasters who may violate public decency standards, and it is using this authority in the CBS case. It is much less clear whether the agency can challenge cable or satellite television operators, no matter how offensive their programming might be to local community standards. In fact, if MTV, and not CBS, had actually aired the halftime show, the FCC would probably have done nothing to challenge such programming.
We believe it is time for a new approach to address the matter of offensive content aired over pay television. With cable rates up more than 50 percent since Congress started deregulating the cable industry in 1996, and satellite TV doing virtually nothing to discipline cable’s thirst for higher rates, it is time to give consumers the power to pick the channels they want on cable and satellite television. Instead of forcing consumers to buy service tiers of 40, 50, or 75 channels which include networks they never watch or channels they find offensive, Congress should require cable and satellite operators to offer a la carte programming. Let people pick and pay for only those channels they want. We believe this would be one of the best ways to save consumers money and empower those who are offended by some of today’s program offerings.
Gene Kimmelman
Senior Director of Public Policy and Advocacy