FCC Seeks To Rein In Violent TV Shows

The FCC's Kevin J. Martin says legislation would provide a tool to protect kids.
The FCC's Kevin J. Martin says legislation would provide a tool to protect kids. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By Paul Farhi and Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Federal regulators, concerned about the effect of television violence on children, will recommend that Congress enact legislation to give the government unprecedented powers to curb violence in entertainment programming, according to government and TV industry sources.

The Federal Communications Commission has concluded that regulating TV violence is in the public interest, particularly during times when children are likely to be viewers -- typically between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., FCC sources say.

The agency's recommendations -- which will be released in a report to Congress within the next week, agency officials say -- could set up a legal battle between Washington and the television industry.

For decades, the FCC has penalized over-the-air broadcasters for airing sexually suggestive, or "indecent," speech and images, but it has never had the authority to fine TV stations and networks for violent programming.

The report -- commissioned by members of Congress in 2004 and based on hundreds of comments from parents, industry officials, academic experts and others -- concludes that Congress has the authority to regulate "excessive violence" and to extend its reach for the first time into basic-cable TV channels that consumers pay to receive.

First Amendment experts and television industry executives, however, say that any attempt to regulate TV violence faces high constitutional hurdles -- particularly regarding cable, because consumers choose to buy its programming.

Further, any laws governing TV violence would have to define what violence is. The FCC report contains broad guidelines but leaves the details up to Congress.

Regulators and lawmakers say that violent acts on entertainment shows -- from torture scenes on Fox's "24" to the cartoonish mayhem of professional wrestling -- have escalated in recent years, posing a continuing threat to children.

"Parents are always the first and last line of defense in protecting their children, but legislation could give parents more tools," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said yesterday regarding the report. "I think it would be better if the industry addressed this on its own, but we can also give parents" help through regulation.

The FCC's conclusions probably will form the basis of legislation being drafted by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), says spokeswoman Wendy Morigi. Rockefeller, who is a Commerce Committee member, will introduce his bill after he has digested the FCC's recommendations, she said.

The FCC is finishing its recommendations amid heightened sensitivity to the issue, given the round-the-clock TV news coverage of the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech.

Social-science research dating back to the 1950s has demonstrated that prolonged exposure to watching violence on TV has a negative effect on children -- with observed behavior ranging from heightened anxiety to aggressive acts. But studies also have shown that some portrayals of TV violence can be beneficial, such as showing children the harm caused by violent behavior.

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