Tales of the Sausage Factory: Clear Channel Settlement Signals Indecency Running Out Of Steam

The FCC and Clear Channel reached a settlement on all pending indecency proceedings involving Clear Channel. You can read a copy of the Consent Decree and the statements of the various Commissioners here. As usual, I’m more interested in what it means. To me, this says “the Bush Administration wants indecency to go away as an issue.” Surprised?

As you may recall, after the Janet Jackson business, it looked like indecency was going to become the big issue in broadcasting this year — with a possible feed in from media ownership. (Check out my previous postings.) At first glance, the Clear Channel settlement looks like part of the steady drumbeat. Clear Channel admits guilt (solely for the purpose fo the concent decree, not for any other legal purpose), pays a “record fine” and agrees to set up a remedial policy to rehbilitate the errant poddy mouths. Victory for the Family Values Council and the moral conservative wing of the Republican party, right?

Well, not really. Start by picking up on what Copps complains about in his dissent– the FCC has not bothered to investigate the full scope of the complaints. Given how high some fines have been running, the $1.75 Million is chump change for Clear Channel, which could have been on the hook for a heck of a lot more.

Now add in what some others have been noticing, that the push to pass indecency legislation has slowed to a crawl. Thats in part because the version that came out of the Senate Commerce Committee has a media ownership provision the Republican leadership finds distasteful (and therefore won’t bring to the floor unless they can get it stripped out, which seems unlikely given the enthusiasm shown in the Senate for restoring ownership limits), while the House version wants to extend indecency regs to cable, which raises constitutional issues.

So what happened? Well, for one thing, after everyone calmed down, lawmakers and policymakers started thinking things through and realizing that the solutions were not all that simple after all. After a few false starts, everyone but Howard Stern started acting contrite and learning their lesson. The big media moguls who are buddies with the Bush people – Loury Mays at Clear Channel, Rupert Murdoch at News Corp., and others — all started discretely lobbying for the administration to quietly ease off. And, perhaps most importantly, the vast majority of the public got bored of the issue, or started to have second thoughts. The same people still hate Howard Stern, and think he’s gross, but the repeated mantra (from those same group owners that generate the content in the first place) that if we start cracking down on this stuff we’ll be back to the good conduct codes of the 1950s and MTV Spring Break, the Sopranos, and Dead Like Me will get turned into kiddie shows has given a lot of people mixed feelings about the whole business.

Finally, recall that Michael Powell really hates this stuff. He is an ideological libertarian who thinks _Pacifica_ (the Supreme Court case on indecency) was wrongly decided and whose three years of declining to enforce this stuff helped generate the frustration that led to the political blowup in January. Like everyone else, he’s learned his lines and has stopped trying to defend the FCC’s previous approach. But he is certainly glad to settle as much as possible and make the whole thing go away rather than try to whip it up for political points with the conservatives.

So my own feeling is that the Clear Channel settlement is the attempt by Powell and the administration generally to declare vistory and go home, at least until after the election. And, as long as broadcasters manage to behave themselves until November, odds are good it’ll be just that. But this issue will continue to smolder until the next big blow up. Because indecency makes money, corporations are in the business of making money, and they will continue to push the envelope as soon as they feel it’s safe.

Stay tuned . . .

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