America's over-the-air broadcasters are facing the threat of a new kind of convergence--this one consisting of a volatile mix of right-wing politics and alternative distribution technologies. If these dangerous elements remain on course, television stations may soon find themselves engulfed in a perfect storm.
The most insidious threat to stations involves the FCC's bizarre indecency crusade. It took only a week after the commission issued stiff fines to broadcasters before the first major network demonstrated to government censors there are easy ways to beat their game.
That leads to a second big threat to TV stations--new alternatives for program distribution. As it was so clearly demonstrated last month, if the FCC continues to wield its big censorship ax, program producers can and will go elsewhere.
Just as the FCC set the stage for broadcasters to air only mindless, sanitized fluff, alternative distribution platforms wait with open arms to get the latest uncensored creative works from the best and brightest television writers and producers.
The FCC's indecency campaign has now gone far beyond Janet Jackson's silly Super Bowl "costume malfunction." Under the FCC chairmanship of Kevin Martin, the initiative has now assumed the characteristics of a right-wing crusade to cleanse the airways of whatever program the commissioners find objectionable on any given day.
A chilling example of this shift is the proposed $15,000 fine against KCSM-TV in San Mateo, Calif., for airing an episode of Martin Scorsese's "The Blues." In this outstanding series on the roots of American music, the old bluesmen spoke in the authentic coarse language of their culture.
That was too much for the rigid FCC commissioners. Fortunately, at least one of them, Jonathan Adelstein, a musician himself who usually joins the majority on indecency issues, broke with his colleagues on this one, calling it a "perilous course" to take action against Scorsese's highly acclaimed series.
"It is clear from a common sense viewing of the program that coarse language is a part of the culture of the individuals being portrayed," Adelstein wrote. "To accurately reflect their viewpoint and emotions about blues music requires airing of certain material that, if prohibited, would undercut the ability of the filmmaker to convey the reality of the subject of the documentary."
Then, Adelstein moved to the issue of context--the part of the FCC's ambiguous indecency campaign that continues to baffle broadcasters and program creators alike. Noting that the commission has repeatedly reaffirmed, and the courts have consistently underscored, the importance of content and context, Adelstein said the decision on "The Blues" departs from those precedents.
"It is certain to strike fear in the hearts of news and documentary makers, and broadcasters that air them, which could chill the future expression of constitutionally protected speech," Adelstein said.
Well, Adelstein certainly got that part right. Within days, The WB network panicked that the March 28 premiere of its own new series, "The Bedford Diaries," would probably set off more fines from prudish FCC members. When WB chairman, Garth Ancier asked the show's creative team to make some edits to accommodate the FCC, the answer was an emphatic "NO."
The "no" came from a heavy hitter in Hollywood. "The Bedford Diaries" was created by Tom Fontana, whose credits include "St. Elsewhere," "Homicide" and "Oz." In refusing to re-edit his show, Fontana told The New York Times that he found the FCC ruling "incomprehensible" and "the most chilling thing I've ever faced" in more than 20 years in the television business.
Fontana told the newspaper that the message to TV viewers "is that they'll be forced to go to alternative ways of looking at shows if they want to see the real thing. It's like they're telling people that broadcast television now has much less interesting stuff than you see on the Web or cable."
To hammer that point home, one only has to look at how The WB network responded. Executives took the original, uncensored version of "The Bedford Diaries" and immediately posted it on The WB Web site for immediate commercial-free streaming. Then, a week later, they aired a censored version on the 100-plus WB affiliate stations.
The winners included the viewers, who--with great fanfare--got to see the show uncensored; the program creators, who beat the heavy hand of the FCC; and The WB's executives, who showed spirit and spunk in not allowing the FCC to spoil their party. The big losers, of course, were the stations that ended up with a second-rate show already viewed on the Internet by anyone who cared.
In microcosm, we saw with the saga of "The Bedford Diaries" how the FCC's censorship efforts can negatively impact terrestrial broadcasters, and how the continuation of it may imperil the future viability of stations. I say stations, because networks--like The WB--can always turn to alternative distribution for premium programming where the FCC has no control or power.
Every television executive knows that audiences, regardless of what they say in surveys about wanting family-friendly programming, have always actually voted for more edgy fare in the privacy of the home.
The FCC, through its arbitrary agenda of selective fines, threatens the entire over-the-air medium if it relegates broadcasters to only the most dumbed-down, sanitized programming. If the FCC is not stopped soon in court, good programs will go to alternative distribution, leaving broadcasters with a "vast wasteland" that could make Newton Minnow's version look like utopia.