On the Air, Everywhere


In a story about the crusade against "indecency" on TV and radio, Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy suggests how content regulation could be extended to cable TV, satellite TV and radio, and even the Internet: Like broadcast TV and radio, all use "the public airwaves" to some extent. Satellite signals travel through the air, cable companies get programming off satellites, and people increasingly have wireless access to the Internet.

As Kennedy notes, the "scarcity" rationale that supposedly justified government control of the airwaves is looking quainter every day. Americans can choose from a plethora of media options, and exactly how programming gets to them is a distinction without a difference. But that realization could result in more censorship rather than less.

For politicians who want to protect children from fictional sex and violence, the criteria for content regulation seem to be prevalence and accessibility (which is why they focus on basic cable rather than premium channels). These are the two characteristics of broadcasting that the Supreme Court emphasized in its 1978 decision upholding the FCC's indecency rules. With cable or satellite TV in 85 percent of American homes, broadcasting is no longer uniquely pervasive. As for accessibility, critics of indecency do not think it's reasonable to expect parents to restrict their kids' access to TV, monitor what they watch, or do without TV altogether. Hence they view a naked woman on FX as a sort of public nuisance, not much different from a naked woman walking down the street. The "public airwaves" have nothing to do with it.