Sen. Jay Rockefeller plays the race to the bottom card


The Senate hearing Wednesday 11/17/10 focused on the state of retransmission consent negotiations, a hearing inspired primarily by the service disruption that was a prominent feature of the recent Fox/Cablevision impasse. But Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) briefly hijacked to proceeding to attack television in general and Fox News Channel and MSNBC in particular.

The race to the bottom is a phrase that has been used innumerable times by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps to describe the coarsening of content in entertainment programming. Rockefeller has aligned himself with Copps in the past on this issue, in which they have another prominent ally in decency watchdog Parents Television Council.

Rockefeller’s assessment of the current state of television journalism was harsh. “Even worse, our news media has all but surrendered to the forces of entertainment. Instead of a watchdog that is a check on the excesses of government and business, we have the endless barking of a 24-hour news cycle. We have journalism that is always ravenous for the next rumor, but insufficiently hungry for the facts that can nourish our democracy. As citizens, we are paying a price.”

Rockefeller said he was tired of both Fox and MSNBC, right and left.

He also made noises that strongly indicated support for a la carte MVPD programming menus. “When it comes to packaging content, why do consumers have to order so many channels? Why do we have to pay for so many when our households watch so few? The old adage of 500 channels and nothing on has never been so true as it is today.”

He also complained about the steady escalation in subscription fees that continually exceed the rate of inflation.

Getting back on topic, he said that the vested interests need to solve retrans without holding citizens hostage, and said if not, Congress would step in, and it wouldn’t stop at retrans.

“So let me caution our witnesses today: if you fail to fix this situation, we will fix it for you. But when we do, we will seek to do more than referee your corporate disputes. Because more than just retransmission consent ails our television markets. We need new catalysts for quality news and entertainment programming. We need slimmed down channel packages that better respect what we really want to watch. And we need to find ways to provide greater value for television viewers at a lower cost. Because people are tired of always escalating rates.”

RBR-TVBR observation: We’re always amazed at the certitude of those who say they know where the bottom is; who know what the community decency standards are; and who invariably claim to speak for the majority of Americans.

Program ratings offer a measure of where community standards are. Not a good one – the audience is too fragmented – but clearly, a lot of people are not offended by much of the material that seems hard for some legislators, regulators and watchdogs to stomach.

In truth, the standards shift all the time. Words that were acceptable become dicey, and formerly dicey words become OK. The same with program standards – the rules that applied to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo are laughable nowadays.

And no matter what rules are put in place, talented writers and programmers can always, always, always get around them. In fact, getting around them becomes a game and a source of comedy and satire in its own right. There is nothing wrong with the word widget for example – but we could easily work it into a sentence in which we could clearly give the word an indecent new substitute meaning. You may be doing so yourself right now!

The foundation of the speech in the United States is the First Amendment. Broadcasters have long operated under less-than-full First Amendment protection, and they are used to doing it, and frankly, slip-ups are rare. The more legislators and regulators stray from that foundation, however, the less firm their footing is, as recent court rulings have shown.

We freely admit that we have no idea where the community standards are. But fortunately, Sen. Rockefeller, our television set comes with a device to change the channel. We’ll bet yours does too! Our friendly suggestion is that you use it when the need arises. That’s what we do!