net.wars: Seven dirty indecencies

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 18 February 2005

This week, Wendy M Grossman compares indecency of the wireless sort with indecency of the topless sort, and finds a lesson for those who commit indecency of a political nature...

Wendy M Grossman

I think it was one of C. Northcote Parkinson's lesser known laws that held that the smaller the sum of money at issue the longer the debate about its spending would go on. The example I recall was a board meeting with two agenda items, one a multi-million dollar commitment to buy a specialised piece of equipment, the other the $25 coffee budget.

In Parkinson's analysis, only two people at the meeting understood the piece of equipment, and the one who hadn't proposed it had all sorts of questions that were too complicated to explain. Plus, multiple millions of dollars (this was, I think 30 years ago, when that was real money) were not comprehensible to the average person being paid in tens of thousands. So the multi-million-dollar commitment went through on the nod. By contrast, he said, everyone understands coffee. They all drink coffee. They know what they think it ought to cost, and they know what they think it ought to taste like. So the discussion about the coffee budget goes on for hours and hours.

Indecency is the coffee of the media regulation world. The US House of Representatives voted this week to massively raise fines for violations of the indecency rules covering broadcast television. Instead of the maximum of $32,500 per violation that applied to Janet Jackson's boob, broadcasters and performers will now be looking at fines up to $500,000.

Imagine. A single rebroadcast of  George Carlin's famous "Seven Dirty Words" could cost…  I make it $20.5 million, and that's if it's only carried on one station. Which I mean, nobody has just one station any more. Think of the bill Clear Channel would have to pay for one national broadcast.

Everyone understands indecency. They know - or think they know - it when they see it. Everyone's familiar with swear words; we've all used them, we all understand them, and we're all embarrassed when our two-year-olds use them in polite company. Everyone's familiar with boobs, too, and everyone is qualified to have an opinion about any given boob sighting. Let's nail the bastards. It plays well in the home constituency. Family values, and all that.

By contrast, the subjects that really matter today in telecommunications are difficult, complicated, understood by a small minority, and net you nothing in the way of home kudos if you fight over them.

Telecommunications concentration. The broadcast flag. Spectrum allocation. Railing against media concentration gets you some attention; people see the immediate effect as all the stations in their town turn to the same bland top-40 mush.

Actually, spectrum allocation and indecency regulation are allied. Regulating the content of broadcast television has two justifications. One: the nature of the medium is such that anyone turning on a TV set may be bombarded with material they would never choose to see and over which they have no control. Hence, the argument goes, a lowest-common-denominator approach is appropriate. Television should offend no one. Fine. I won't swear on television if broadcasters will encrypt Kelly Ripa to protect the public.

Even in Europe, where the odd naked body on television is hardly considered scandalous, people get exercised about swearing; the UK operates a "watershed" time before which material unsuitable for children is not supposed to be broadcast.

The second justification is that available spectrum is limited. It belongs to the public, and therefore should be allocated in the public's best interests. Of course, that ain't necessarily so any more. But that is the justification for allowing cable and satellite channels greater latitude, and granting that terrestrial broadcast television still has a more universal reach than cable and satellite, even in the US, that might still be a reasonable position.

But possibly not for much longer. As software-defined radio becomes the new disruptive technology, we can be far more efficient with spectrum than we are now - the equivalent of the telecommunication industry's change from circuit switching to packet switching. But this is so far beyond being something that Congressfolk can use to impress their constituents today that it might as well not exist.

Not that I blame them entirely. It's so easy to get distracted by indecency (humans are hard-wired for indecency, aren't we?) that in 1996, when the Telecommunications Act was being passed, we all got so wound up about the section known as the Communications Decency Act and what it would mean with respect to censoring the Internet that we totally failed to protest the Act's main body. You know, the parts that are allowing the telecommunications industry to merge into a few megagiants now, arguably posing far more threat to Net freedoms than the CDA ever did. The CDA was struck down in court at its first challenge for violating the First Amendment. The Telecommunications Act proper is allowing mass marriage: Verizon is acquiring MCI, SBC is gobbling AT&T, and Sprint and Nextel are merging. And as broadband takes over from dial-up, the thousands of small ISPs are losing out to a tiny handful of very big suppliers.

In the meantime, I think that's a silly price to pay for anyone's boob. If we're seriously going to charge people for indecency violations, I think we should start by applying the maximum fine to broadcasts of the president telling lies that take us into wars.

Instant boobs, anyone? - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).