Chairman Stevens Delivers Speech to the National Association of Broadcasters

March 1, 2005

2005 National Association of Broadcasters State Leadership Conference
March 1, 2005
Washington, DC
Commerce Committee Chairman Senator Ted Stevens
Click here for an audio of Chairman Ted Stevens' Speech

Text of Chairman Stevens' Speech:

I don’t think there’s a group that comes to Washington that I would feel more at home with. Let me thank Eddie Fritts. I thought he was going to tell a story about my fishing but I’m glad he didn’t. He usually tells the truth. That’s the problem.

I want to introduce the person who will chair the staff, the chief of staff of our Committee, Lisa Sutherland. With her is Christine Kurth who will primarily work on communications.

I hesitate to single anyone out from a group this size but let me tell you that there is one person here that I will never forget because at a meeting of this Association in Denver about 25 years ago we just happened to go up in the hotel for a little game. We didn’t have Texas Hold‘em in those days. No one has ever dealt me, in a five-card stud game, a royal flush, other than Russ Withers. Thank you. You can’t forget that.

Eddie and I have had a great working relationship and a great friendship. Whether we’ve been working on important communication issues or fishing, Eddie has always tackled the issues and hooked the fish with great passion and we always look forward to getting together. Even though Eddie is leaving you can rest assured we’ll continue to keep informed on your issues. We have several people who try to keep me up to speed on broadcast issues, particularly Mitch Rose who is over with ABC. I rely on a great many of you to keep me informed and I particularly enjoy meeting you at the table – and I mean the Texas Hold‘em table.

I go back a long way with broadcasters as many of you know. I represented the broadcasters in Alaska before they formed the Alaska Broadcastering Association. As a matter of fact, after coming down here once, before I came to the Senate, I went back and said I thought we ought to form the Alaska Broadcasters Association. My old friend Augie Hiebert led that fight and that is a great group. There’s a group here today from the Alaska Broadcasters and I am glad to be with you. They don’t hesitate to let me know your views, let’s put it that way.

Last year I spoke to you about media ownership and introduced a bill to limit the reach of the networks to 35 percent -- to retain a local voice in programming, but I didn’t realize the firestorm I was unleashing.

That single issue generated more comments to the FCC than any issue in history. Hundreds of thousands of Americans wrote to the Chairman, emailed him, or called in to say that local voice in broadcasting mattered to them.

Now the financial incentive for you to deliver that very programming has been damaged I think by the commission’s must-carry decision.

You may not have access to capital to develop a program that will not be carried on cable. That is the problem and I said so while the commission was deliberating.

The FCC decision limits the incentive to broadcasters in that they have to develop new and exciting local content to put it on the air.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans get their television from cable so I don’t think anyone in their right mind will develop programming that cable will refuse to carry.

But there is a faint glimmer of hope. A number of members of the commission echoed some of my concerns in their comments. They felt the law was vague and did not give them the latitude to require public service requirements.

While the FCC decided this issue, it left the door wide open for Congress to act to the contrary and that will be part of the digital transition debate that is just beginning.

The House just held its first hearings on the DTV transition, and Chairmen Barton and Upton are committed to a firm transition date of December 31, 2006. There is a lot of unanswered questions yet to be decided, in my judgment:

Although we are committed to work closely with the House as it moves forward, we aren’t wed to any specific proposal. And when I say we on this, I really do mean Dan Inouye. We not only call each other brothers, we have acted as brothers for years now and have been together in Defense Appropriations for almost 35 years. My comments here today were read by Dan and really approved before I came here today. We intend to keep that relationship and be, as Eddie said, completely bipartisan in our approach to issues. We’re partisan – we’re partisan when elections come, except that he campaigns for me and I campaign for him. But that’s because we are close and we believe that working together we accomplish a great deal more than working alone.

We will listen to cable, consumer groups, the technical experts, and we want to listen to you. Rather than having a series of formal hearings to start with, we’re going to begin consideration of all of our issues in the Commerce Committee with a series of listening sessions by informed parties – people who know something about the issues. We’re going to complement those listening sessions with formal hearings or a hearing, at least, as well. Only then will we ask the Committee to make up their minds and join us on the best way to proceed to solve the issues involved in each subject that we deal with.

An issue that is on all of your minds, I’m sure, is indecency. There’s no offense intended – I don’t mean you always think about indecency. But we made it through the Superbowl without another wardrobe malfunction, but unfortunately sexual content on television is rampant, even during the family-viewing hour.

For example, one network program was an animation about a lion that aired at 8:00 p.m. before many kids go to bed. The star of the show, cartoon character lion, openly discussed sex toys and masturbation. Now why is that on TV at 8:00 at night? I’m not a prude and I like to look at shows that might go a little bit over the line, but I don’t think children should. And we wonder why our children are sexually active at a young age. We spend millions to promote abstinence, while the public airwaves are increasingly promoting sex.

Now broadcasters alone are not to blame. Cable is often worse, very worse. As a matter of fact I can’t remember really getting up and leaving a program at my age, but I did the other night on cable. I just got tired of four letter words with participles. I decided who ever wrote that program didn’t have a dictionary. It’s something really that parents get after us about and we’re in public life. We have to listen to parents. A recent study by the Parent’s Television Council said that nearly three-quarters of all teenage children watch MTV.

But when the study looked at what was on MTV, it found that at any given hour of viewing, a young teenage girl or boy would see sexually suggestive acts and violence, including abuse of women.

Most parents, if they knew that, would not let their kids watch those shows that glorify violence and abuse of women. But in today’s society when over 70 percent of mothers with teenagers work outside the home, parents must have the capability to shut this down without having to be there to preview and monitor each show.

I applaud the cable industry for beginning to develop the tools to enable parents to block out inappropriate programming for children.

It’s a little like healthy eating -- and I got this from my ladies over here. If Haagen Daz is in the refrigerator, it may be too tempting to expect a teenager not to eat it when his parents aren’t home. But if it never makes it into the shopping cart, the temptation won’t be there.

I hope that you don’t misunderstand me. No one wants censorship. We want your cooperation. We think the concept of indecency is something that all Americans care about and I’m sure you’ll join us in that with regard to trying to protect children from this increasing tempo of sex, violence, and abuse of women.

To get to the heart of your concerns -- the status of your licenses. The House indecency bill includes a provision that would require a revocation hearing if broadcasters have three indecency violations. Three strikes and you’re out.

It may surprise you, but I offered the same amendment last year in a bill that was approved 22-0 by the Commerce Committee.

In reality though, if you look at it, you aren’t out. First, you would have to have a hearing to consider whether you should be out. And each swing of the bat would not be counted as a strike until the FCC ruled that it was indecent and a court then agreed. Then all appeals would have to be exhausted before it could be formally considered a strike. It sort of looks like an employment for lawyers opportunity. But what it is really meant to be is a shot across the bow because in reality it would be nearly impossible to for any responsible broadcaster to lose a license under that scenario if you think about it.

Now Dan and I have heard your pleas about the impact of having your license at risk, even remotely, and what affect it could have on your ability to raise capital.

Our Committee is looking at different options to address your concern. One suggestion is to limit a broadcaster to one strike in a 24-hour period. That way, if one guest on a late-night show went wild, uttering the f-word three times in one sentence – I heard one sentence that was all f-words -- the network would not be exposed to license revocation.

Another idea is to redefine what constitutes a strike, focusing on the most egregious violations, not the inadvertent remarks over which a broadcaster could not possibly have control.

In reality, much of the unintended profanity will be cleaned up with the new talent provision in the House bill, which, incidentally, I put in the Senate committee bill last year.

That subjects actors, singers, and other performers to up to a $500,000 fine for nudity or profane speech. I have been told that each guest is warned right before they go out on stage on live television that they are forbidden from swearing. Yet some ignore the warnings and go right ahead and do it anyway. That is because they know they can get away with it. And that the risk was on the network. If a performer under these provisions wants to expose his or herself, they’ll be fined. They’ll be the one exposed to a $500,000 fine.

We haven’t settled on any one of these things in our Committee yet. We are willing to listen and that’s why I’m here today. We both would have been here today, but for Dan’s conflict in terms of committee assignments and hearing.

I look forward to working with you on these issues in the days to come. As a matter of fact, I consider it to be one of our greatest challenges – to try and determine how to solve some of these issues, to meet the public demand, and still leave you with the capability to conduct your business, to raise the capital, and to really deliver the type of programming that all Americans want to see and hear. So thank you for allowing me to be with you today.

Again let me tell you that we, and I think I speak for all of the Committee, want to work with you to try to solve some of these problems. We want to find someway to stop loading down the FCC with minutiae and let them deal with the very big subjects of the future of communications and be the sort of traffic cop in that area and not have to deal wit the issues such as I have been discussing with you this morning. Thank you very much.