April 19, 2005

TV Execs to Discuss Broadcast Indecency

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Wardrobe malfunctions, radio shock jocks and "Saving Private Ryan" will be hot topics among TV and radio executives at the annual National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas.

Earlier this month, Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., who heads the powerful House Judiciary Committee, told cable executives that criminal prosecutions would be an efficient way to enforce indecency regulations.

That kind of tough talk didn't sit well with cable programmers and won't go over with commercial broadcasters either at the convention that begins Monday. Station owners believe they should regulate themselves rather than be subjected to rulings by federal authorities that can carry hefty fines.

"The industry needs to be able to come together" and agree on indecency standards, said Gary Chapman, chairman and president of Rhode Island-based LIN TV Corp. (TVL), which owns 25 stations in 14 markets across the country. "The last thing we want is for the government to do it."

Concerns about inconsistent enforcement of indecency standards caused many ABC affiliates to balk at airing an unedited version of the Stephen Spielberg film "Saving Private Ryan" last Veterans Day. The stations feared the film's profanity and violence could spark complaints to the Federal Communications Commission and result in fines.

The FCC eventually ruled the film was not indecent.

"There has to be a white line," Chapman said, noting that his ABC affiliates broadcast the film.

Spurred by the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl, broadcasters rushed to curb any hints of indecency, with networks imposing delays at awards shows and Clear Channel Communications Inc. (CCU) pulling radio personality Howard Stern from its stations.

Many broadcasters complain that FCC indecency rules do not apply to cable and satellite stations.

"The vast majority of people recognize broadcast programming is far less explicit than what you find on cable and satellite," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said. "But if you are going to regulate broadcasters, the same rules ought to apply to cable and satellite."

At the convention, a panel of station owners, including Chapman, will tackle the topic. The issue is also expected to be pressed by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who was named the nation's top media regulator last month.

Also dominating this year's gathering will be the transition from analog to digital broadcasting in television and radio.

Reflecting the importance of the issue, the convention's keynote speaker is Ivan Seidenberg, chairman and CEO of telecommunications firm Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) The phone company delivers high-speed Internet access, which will one day carry TV signals into homes.

High-definition radio has already started to appear across the country and stations will make an even bigger push in the months ahead as the industry faces competition from satellite radio and downloadable music.

"It will help us maintain our competitive edge over iPods, over Internet radio and satellite radio," Wharton said. "This is our calling card into the future."

About 300 stations offer the format, which broadcasts AM signals at FM quality and FM signals at CD quality. That number is expected to grow to 1,300 stations by next year and more than 3,000 in the next few years, Wharton said.

Unlike radio, where the transition to digital is voluntary, the government has mandated that TV stations switch to digital signals by Dec. 31, 2006. That deadline is unlikely to be met, in large part because TV manufacturers have been slow to offer digital sets at an affordable price.

Chapman said 20 million analog TV sets will be sold this year - sets that will become obsolete once the transition to digital is made.