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Reese makes the case for broadcasters

Bruce Reese took exception to the apparently widespread belief that broadcasters are filling the airwaves with filth. "To begin," he said, "it may be useful to remember that the vast majority of broadcasters have never had the FCC take any action against them on the indecency issue." He noted that the vast majority of programming complaints have been generated by organized mass Internet projects, and further, when there have been transgressions, the FCC has not been shy about slapping fines on the offenders. He said that broadcasters are locally oriented, and must in the course of doing business respect local community standards. These standards, however, are not the same from one place to another. He particularly noted the difficulty faced by broadcasters in an environment in which satellite and cable programmers are unrestrained. He specifically mentioned Howard Stern, who he said is installing a stripper pole in his new Sirius studio in preparation to shedding whatever broadcast restraint he currently operates with, and XM's Opie & Anthony, who already have left restraint in their wake - - and both shows are headed for satellite TV as well. "So the Committee would be well advised to consider the uneven playing field that broadcasters have with our satellite and cable competitors."

Reese's full testimony

My name is Bruce Reese. I am the President and CEO of Bonneville International. Bonneville owns and operates the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City. We also own and operate 38 radio stations around the country, including WTOP here in Washington. I am also the Joint Board Chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters. NAB has long been active in content issues. We played a key role in implementing the V-Chip technology and the voluntary ratings system. So, we look forward to today's discussion.

Debate on this issue is often polarizing and steeped in emotion. And many of us often find ourselves on both sides of the issue. On one side are those who have reservations about programming content and, in particular, how media affects children. As a parent and grandparent, I certainly see that side.

On the other side are those with legitimate and deeply held First Amendment concerns. As a broadcaster and a lawyer, I have argued that side of the debate as well.

Given how emotionally charged this debate often becomes, I am hopeful that today's forum can be informed by facts about what's occurring in our media...and what is happening in the marketplace.

To begin, it may be useful to remember that the vast majority of broadcasters have never had the FCC take any action against them on the indecency issue. It is also worth noting that many of the complaints that have been filed originate with one or two well-organized interest groups. For instance: Broadcasting and Cable magazine reported that over 23,000 indecency complaints were filed at the FCC in July. All but five of those came from one entity. Now, anybody has a right to lodge complaints. But, we should not mistake mass, Internet generated complaints for an organic outpouring of citizen outrage.

Another fact to consider: the FCC is well equipped to mete out it demonstrated in 2004, issuing 7.7 million dollars in indecency fines...compared to just 48 thousand dollars in 2000.

So, I hope these facts can play a role as the Committee examines this issue.

All that said, local broadcasters recognize that we have an obligation to provide programming that meets our communities' local standards. And local standards should indeed be local. What is perfectly acceptable in New York City may be inappropriate in Salt Lake City. That's why a few years ago Bonneville, my company, preempted an NBC program called Couplings. We didn't think the show was right for our Salt Lake City viewers, so we preempted it.

But, just as our industry observes local community standards...we also operate in an increasingly competitive media marketplace. And our competitors have no parallel constraints. Cable programmers target appealing demographics with uncut Hollywood movies...and sexually explicit and violence laden shows like Rome and Deadwood. Satellite radio has become a willing haven for edgy audio content. Howard Stern attributes his move to Sirius to the indecency crackdown. As he put it, "I guarantee I will reinvent myself, because I can go further than I have ever gone." Sirius has prepared for Mr. Stern's arrival by outfitting Mr. Stern's studio with a stripper pole. The shock jocks Opie and Anthony, who were fired from over-the-air radio, are on XM...where they provide even raunchier programming. "Opie" recalling negotiations with XM executives, said to the New York Times "We were trying to convince them that we're reformed now, we've learned our lesson.... And we heard over and over again, 'Guys, just go crazy. Do whatever you want in there.'" Opie and Anthony and Howard Stern are not on a special tier. They are available to any XM or Sirius listener. And now, with XM partnering with DirecTV, and Sirius with EchoStar, this programming will be piped into 25 million satellite television homes.

So the Committee would be well advised to consider the uneven playing field that broadcasters have with our satellite and cable competitors. The Committee should also balance any changes to the indecency regime with First Amendment concerns. Provisions in some recently circulated legislation could have a severe chilling effect on free speech. Any indecency legislation must have clear guidelines that are applied in a consistent manner. And, if the Committee alters the indecency regime, certain culpability protections should be included to provide balance and avoid unintended consequences.

Mr. Chairman, local broadcasters are well acquainted with the critical importance of the First Amendment to our society. Our business depends upon it. And, as public licensees, we take seriously our obligation to offer responsible programming that serves our local communities. So, for us, Mr. Chairman, these two values are not in competition. For local broadcasters, responsibility and freedom of expression are opposite sides of the same coin.

Thank you again for having me.

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