With the help of his Washingon rep, California broadcaster Harry Pappas persuaded a Nebraska senator to champion a measure that would give affiliates some protection against stiff fines for broadcast indecency. But the measure is still a long way from law.
President Bush last month signed into law legislation that jacks up the fine for broadcast indecency ten-fold to $325,000 per incident. That’s a big number to small-market TV stations—a make-or-break number for some.
But relief may be on the way.
The Senate Commerce Committee last week attached an amendment to its telecom reform bill granting some protection for non-network-owned TV affiliates from the FCC’s stiff indecency fines.
Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson sponsored the amendment, which basically exempts affiliates from FCC fines if they have not had an opportunity to preview network programming nor received an advisory from the network concerning potentially objectionable content.
So who got to Nelson? Who should TV broadcasters thank?
The credit goes to Harry Pappas, chairman and CEO of Pappas Telecasting, and his chief Washington representative Peter C. Pappas (no relation to Harry).
Pappas Telecasting has a strong presence in Nebraska. It has stations in Omaha (Fox affiliate KPTM and WB affiliate KXVO) and in the Lincoln-Hastings-Kearney market (ABC affiliate KHGI and Fox affiliate KTVG).
“It would be unfair to fine non-network-owned affiliates for programming that they have no way of knowing beforehand might subject them to liability,ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â says Peter Pappas.
The FCC’s indecency decisions concerning the broadcasts of Fox’s Married by America and CBS’s Without a Trace are based upon “inaccurate assumptionsÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â about the nature of the network programming distribution system. In reality, says Pappas, “network affiliates receive network programming from a satellite at the exact moment the program goes to air.ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â
And for small- and medium-market stations, absorbing that kind of a fine won’t be easy, he says.
Even with the Pappas amendment, the committee’s telecom reform bill is a mixed bag for broadcasters. The bill is aimed primarily at speeding the entrance of telephone companies into competition with cable, which broadcasters see as a good thing as telco presence in a market would give them leverage in retrans negotiations with cable.
But the bill also includes broadcast-unfriendly measures that would permit cable systems to downconvert broadcasters’ DTV signals and that would allow unlicensed wireless devices in so-called “white spacesÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â between TV channels that could cause serious interference problems.
On the other hand, there is also a broadcast flag provision in the bill that would make the broadcast networks happy.
Broadcasters should not get too excited about any of this. On the whole, the telecom bill is considered highly controversial, which means passage this year is unlikely.
As one communications lobbyist put it, the telecom bill is “on life support, but not dead.ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â
And, unfortunately for broadcasters, the best way to improve the bill’s viability is by stripping extraneous provisions like indecency relief. The Parents Television Council, the leading anti-indecency crusader, is already demanding that the Pappas/Nelson amendment be jettisoned.
Peter Pappas didn’t want to discuss his measure’s prospects. But he surely knows that patience is a virtue in Washington. If the measure can’t hitch a ride on telecom reform, another legislative vehicle will soon come along.
And Pappas seems to be in it for the long haul. It’s a matter of “fundamental fairness,ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â he says.