Take action: help clean up TV

Many people are concerned about the state of television today. They see rising levels of violence, profanity and graphic sexuality. Yet, too many people don’t know what to do about it, or, knowing, fail to act. There is a great deal that can be done, however. While broadcasting corporations seem unresponsive to the public’s concerns, there are a number of leverage points that can still get their attention if enough people apply pressure.

What can I do?
It may be tempting to shy away from difficult efforts like standing up to multinational corporations or bureaucratic government institutions. Yet, in this battle, citizen action is essential. Most people do not realize that the airwaves belong to everyone. Broadcasters’ licenses are renewed based upon how well they serve the public interest. So the only way broadcasters will lose their license is if they are violating the public interest. This can never be established without average folks making complaints when they feel the law has been broken.

Every situation has a leverage point. For broadcasters, it is money.

Broadcasters that air indecent or profane material can lose money in a couple of ways. They can be fined for indecency violations, and lose advertising revenue through the flight of viewers or when companies stop sponsoring programs.

Lost revenues do speak to broadcasters, and enough public pressure can get even the most reluctant government agency to act. Remember the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident? More than half a million people let their voices ring out, leading the FCC to fine CBS and Congress to increase the fine amounts tenfold.

File an indecency complaint
If you see offensive content on TV or hear it on the radio, you can file a complaint with the FCC:

Federal Communications Commission
Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th St., SW
Washington, DC 20554

In making obscenity, indecency, and profanity determinations, context is key. The FCC asks complainants to provide the following information:

•    Information regarding the details of what was actually said or depicted during the broadcast. Subject matter alone is not sufficient to determine whether material is obscene, indecent, or profane. Stating only that the objectionable programming “discussed sex” or had a “disgusting discussion of sex” is not sufficient. Moreover, the FCC must know the context when analyzing whether specific, isolated words or images are obscene, indecent, or profane.
•    The date and time of the broadcast. Indecent or profane speech that is broadcast between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. is not actionable.
•    The call sign, channel, or frequency of the station involved. To take enforcement action for the airing of prohibited material, the FCC must be able to identify the station that aired the material. The name of the program, DJ, personality, song, or film; network; and city and state where you heard or saw the program are also helpful.

Make it local
When filing complaints with the FCC, a parallel and effective measure is to file a complaint directly with the offending TV or radio station. Most stations maintain a website with options for consumer comments. Expressing your displeasure with offending content and your belief that is has violated broadcast decency laws should get the immediate attention of a station manager.

Further, broadcasters are required by law to keep public comments on file for several years. If a broadcaster receives several negative public comments, he will begin to sweat his license renewal, which happens every seven years. Although losing a license is extremely rare, the threat of such an action is enough for most broadcasters to make positive changes. If you have a repeat offender, it might be helpful to schedule a meeting and kindly express your concerns about the material his station is airing. Remind him that you have the ability to oppose his license renewal and may be inclined to do so. Above all, don’t let up until the station cleans up.

Contact the advertisers that support indecent programming
Economic pressure is a highly effective way to curb offensive broadcast programming. Advertisers want maximum exposure for their product, but most won’t risk their reputations to do so. It may be frustrating to see national and local businesses underwriting offensive programming, but often these companies have hired an ad agency to place their ads and have no intent to pollute the TV landscape. Many may not even know their ads are appearing on certain programs or understand the type of content that is on those shows.

This again shows the importance of citizen complaints. Unless they are selling sexually themed products, most companies want to avoid offending the public. If you see offensive programming, make a note of the advertisers and use online customer contact forms to register your concerns. Be sure to list your TV market, the time and date of the show and include a brief description of the content that concerns you. Groups like the Parents Television Council often publish contact information for some of the worst sponsors.

Greater parental involvement
As important as it is to take a public stand against indecent content, we need to make sure our own houses aren’t part of the problem. Parents, if you haven’t already, begin creating a safe and positive media environment in your home. Set limits on your children’s TV use, and talk with them about your reasons for doing so. Help them fill that extra time with productive and enjoyable activities such as exercise, reading or family fun nights. Spend time with them by watching some of their favorite shows, and find out what in the program appeals to them. Use situations from their shows as teachable moments for greater insight into life challenges. Move the TV out of their bedroom, and call the cable or satellite company to block offensive channels at the source.

We can clean up television programming, but only if we all stand together.

Copyright © 2013, Daniel Weiss. All rights reserved. Used with permission.