Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 2, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BLUENOSES AT THE TROUGH....The indecency police are feeling their oats. Heady over their success at bending broadcast TV to their will, they're now aiming higher:

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told a group of broadcasters yesterday that he wants to extend that authority to cover the hundreds of cable and satellite television and radio channels that operate outside of the government's control. In addition to basic cable channels such as ESPN, Discovery and MTV, that would include premium channels such as HBO and Showtime and the two satellite radio services, XM and Sirius.

"We put restrictions on the over-the-air signals," Stevens said after his address to the National Association of Broadcasters, according to news reports confirmed by his staff. "I think we can put restrictions on cable itself. At least I intend to do my best to push that."

Of course, the FCC is allowed to regulate broadcast stations only under the theory that the public owns the airwaves and can therefore regulate their use. [Oops, not true. See update below.] The government should no more be allowed to regulate cable TV than they should be allowed to regulate magazines or blog sites. Joe Barton (R-Texas), head of the House Commerce Committee, understands the First Amendment issue:

Cable and broadcast TV "ought to play on the same field. If we can work out the constitutional questions, I'd be supportive of that."

Of course, Barton knows perfectly well that the Supreme Court has ruled on this already. This vote is nothing more than grandstanding, just like a similar vote last year.

To me, though, the worst part of all this is the part that TV broadcasters have long played. "A 5-year-old doesn't know if they're watching cable or over-the-air," says Edward Fritts, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which argues that cable TV should play by the same rules as broadcast TV. Sure, I know the broadcast guys are losing viewers to cable, but are they really so desperate to cripple the competition that they're willing to support stronger government regulation of the whole industry? It's hard to think anything more shortsighted.

UPDATE: In comments, Dilan Esper points out that the "public airwaves" argument is not the key constitutional issue here. He's right. The most recent case on the subject of regulating porn on cable TV was United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, decided in 2000. The Supreme Court did restrict Congress' right to regulate cable TV, but did so primarily on technical grounds, not "public airwaves" grounds. More details here.

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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