The new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission thinks the content of a broadcaster's programming should be regulated just like the contents of a daily newspaper: not at all.
"Nothing would change if Congress passed a law requiring newspapers to print a certain amount of news and public affairs," said FCC Chairman Mark Fowler. "I have no reason to believe broacasters would react any differently. I think it's time to extend the First Amendment to the electronic media. No one forces CBS to air "Sixty Minutes," and it's consistently one of the top five shows on the air."
That visceral distaste for regulation, combined with an unabashed ideological alliance with President Reagan, are bound to make Fowler -- formerly a Washington broadcasting lawyer who primarily represented small radio stations -- popular with the broadcasting industry. On the other hand, citizen activists, organized labor and educational and religious groups are likely to challenge him vigorously.
Fowler thinks television has served the nation far better than its critics suggest. Asked whether he ever thought the industry was the "vast wasteland" one-time FCC chairman Newton Minow has called it, Fowler said he "never bought that . . . That 'vast wasteland' has bloomed with the passage of the years."
While admitting that as a parent he is troubled by some of what he sees on television, Fowler said those views have nothing to do with the FCC's regulatory role. "I enjoy watching television. I'm selective," he said. "But there are some things on television that, as a parent, I don't like -- programming which I think involves some gratuitous sex and violence, which I would not present on the air if I were programming.
"But as a government official, I believe strongly in the First Amendment, and I strongly believe that the government must not and ought not to be involved in suggesting what ought or ought not to be on television, unless it's something clearly obscene," he said.
Fowler may well be the most politically conservative FCC chairman in at least 20 years, not a surprising fact since he has worked as a lawyer on Reaganite," he said. "I'm not a closet Reaganite," he said. "I'm sitting on the front steps.
"Mark Fowler is not the captive of any industry or industry in general. I am a captive of a philsophy of government we call Reaganism," he noted, explaining the philosophy in its simplest form. "We're not giving away the store, but I believe it's the television market anymore. It's the video market. It seems that there are so many different means of delivery now with the new technologies that are available. The government can get out of the way and let entrepreneurial initiative create new possibilities which provide greater diversity and consumer choice."
When put into practice at the FCC, however, that view of Reaganism can be quite cmplex, and the political fallout and battles over the future of television during Fowler's tenure are likely to be bitter. For despite that fact that many television viewers now have access to the options of cable and the coming of other services such as direct-broadcast satellites, most of the nation still has limited viewing choices -- a factor that suggests that political support for laws such as the Fairness Doctrine is anything but timid.
Already, spokesmen for citizens' groups working on broadcasting issues have criticized Fowler's widely reported speeches. After the budget and tax battles clear, that criticism is likely to intensify.
"We are distressed that thus far Fowler's door seems wide open to special pleaders from industry, and he had been uncommunicative to groups representing the general public," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project. "But Fowler is an extremely nice fellow, and conversations with him are enjoyable. He does not exhibit the arrogance that sometimes characterized Charlie Ferris' conduct."
Those who have watched Fowler's first month at the FCC say his basic good nature and easy manner with groups may be his best assets. One industry official said Fowler, at a recent closed meeting with a National Association of Broadcaster group, was confronted by harsh opposition to a pending FCC decision on authorization of direct-broadcast satellites.
Fowler had a smile and a ready response. He urged the opponents to join together and enter the satellite business themselves. Said the observer, "It worked, and the hostility over the issue seemed to vanish."
Clearly the congressional agenda includes the Fairness Doctrine, which requires broadcasters to give air time to both sides of controversial issues. The Fowler agenda, which he said is a top-to-bottom review of broadcasting regulation, will undoubtedly include ascertainment and other licensing requirements.
Some of that agenda is contained in a statement attached to the FCC's recent ruling on the network financial-interest rule, a decision in which Fowler apparently moved the rest of the FCC to join in permitting the net-works to acquire rights in programming for nonbroadcast uses, such as via cable television.
Further, Fowler will not have a "social agenda," a term he used in characterizing some of Ferris' actions such as an investigation of children's programming. "We need to shift from a social agenda to a technical agenda aimed at getting government out of the way," Fowler said.
It is unlikely, Fowler elaborated, that he will support any new FCC regulations that react to a "prospectively perceived harm." For instance, Fowler seems to favor lifting regulations that bar television networks from owning cable systems.
"A hell of a lot of god might come from having the networks involved in owning cable systems," he said. "They've got expertise in programming. They're past players, but we'll try to let the past players be part of future technologies. If there is a media concentration, we'll let the Justice Department handle it."
Fowler is less sure of himself, however, when it coms to the FCC's regulatory role with the telephone industry. He endorses the efforts of previous FCCs to deregulate long distance and equipment markets.
The cmmission, he said, will soon propose amendments to the rewritten 1934 Communication Act, now before the Senate Commerce Committee