Back to the future for the FCC

Back to the future for the FCC
I can’t recall a year in which the FCC has flexed its muscle like this one. The latest brings back an old, naughty word for broadcasters, payola. Forty to fifty years ago, when broadcasting on radio and TV was the only game in town in terms of information and entertainment, rock-n-roll disk jockeys were regularly paid by record companies seeking airtime for their artists. The resultant scandal was called payola, and federal laws were written to prohibit the practice. Now, FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein wants the Commission to look into three examples of payola-esque practices, including some local television stations “selling” segments in news-like broadcasts to businesses looking to sell their wares. Even Senator John McCain wants in on this one. In a report in The Hollywood Reporter, Adelstein said, “The segment makes no mention of the payment or by whom, although a written message comes up during the closing credits. I’ve never once read closing credits on a TV show. Have you?” Another FCC Commissioner, Kathleen Abernathy, is also concerned. “We’re going to look at it,” she said. “As a consumer, it goes to the question: Are you getting accurate information? Is it misleading?”

Okay, I’m not going to defend TV stations who make these kinds of choices, although, in today’s business environment, I can certainly understand why it’s being done. I would point out, however, that’s it’s really nothing new. My problem here is that we have an industry that is still regulated as if it were the only game in town, that what happens over those free airwaves is all that matters. Broadcasting’s competitors, including cable and the Internet, are free from the bondage of Big Brother and can do what they want, which I think is the way it should be. Those businesses are on the uptick, while broadcasting is slowly dying. Let the market determine who wins and who loses. The FCC’s outrage, while perhaps well-intended, is a little like piling on. This is all about politics and public posturing at the expense of broadcasters, and it’s the kind of stuff that drives Postmoderns deeper into their point of view. Come on, everybody. Let’s get out of the 20th century.

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