FCC on the Offensive

Say what you will about the FCC, but you have to admit they’re a scrappy bunch when it comes to pursuing their crackdown on broadcast “indecency.”  First they persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case they lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit – the one about Cher and Nicole Ritchie uttering a couple of verboten words during Fox’s “Billboard Music Awards” shows.

Now the FCC crowd is asking the Supreme Court to hear yet another indecency case they lost – this one in the Third Circuit involving the infamous Janet Jackson wardrobe incident during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show on CBS.

The Supreme Court hasn’t even ruled on the Fox case yet, and in fact heard oral argument only about a month ago (Nov. 4).  But the word on the street is that the justices seemed sympathetic to the FCC’s arguments in Fox – perhaps even sympathetic enough to rule in the agency’s favor.  Handicappers are predicting that a vote favoring the FCC would be slim (say 5 to 4) and decided on narrow procedural grounds, rather than reaching the constitutional issues.  IF the vote goes the FCC’s way at all, that is.  

The common wisdom, of course, is that predicting Supreme Court decisions based on oral argument is a fool’s errand.  So, an unreliable prediction that foresees such a tepid outcome would seem a double whammy, enough to give one pause.

But not the FCC.  They reportedly are buoyed by the oral argument in Fox to the point that they want to pile on with the Janet Jackson matter.  The Commission did, however, request that the High Court defer a decision on whether to hear the Third Circuit case until after the Court rules on the Second Circuit case.   

This begs the question of why the Commission petitioned the Court at this particular time at all.  (The Court is not likely to issue a ruling in Fox until next spring or summer.)  Maybe this is just the Commission’s way of warning broadcasters that the indecency watchdog is not about to roll over and play dead.  To this observer, however, it seems a transparent ploy that might well prove all bark and no bite.    

Call Me Ishmael

In Herman Melville’s novel, Captain Ahab’s obsession is with Moby Dick.  In the morality play that’s been running for years at the FCC, Chairman Kevin Martin’s obsession is with “a la carte” for cable TV.   Missing from this analogy is a communications lawyer as the novel’s Elijah — "ye shall smell land where there is no land” — perhaps because so few of them are into allegory and none say “ye,” but I digress.

The latest chapter in this struggle between good and evil took place last Thursday when, at the point of a gun, 13 cable companies provided the FCC with information, I blanch to say, about their shifting of channels to digital tiers.  Did I just say digital tiers?  Yes I did, and who wouldn’t want to investigate something like that?

For a matter of such gravity, however, it does seem, as the NCTA argued, a wee bit prejudicial and a skosh abrupt for the FCC to have sent its request from the Enforcement Bureau, and to demand the data in 14 days.  Not eager to be fined, all of the companies did in fact respond by the deadline, but it remains to be seen if the FCC will accept their responses as adequate.

This, because according to press accounts, at least some of the respondents were chary about parting with confidential information relating to their deals with program suppliers, and gobsmacked by the sheer volume of the material requested.  Comcast, for instance, estimated it would take 1,500 man hours just to compile the data for 2008.

Whether the agency accepts the companies’ reports or not, however, it’s clear that this is one fishing expedition that’s not going to end here.  Aided and abetted by such as Commissioner Copps, Kevin Martin is hell-bent, you’ll pardon the expression, on saving consumers from fleeting expletives on broadcasting, and all manner of indecent programming on cable TV, and his solution for the latter is a la carte pricing.

So, as with the captain of the Pequod, the order from the captain of the FCC is sure to remain, for at least a little while longer, “steady as she goes."

Obama Names FCC Transition Team

President-elect Obama has named the members of his FCC transition team.  They are Professors Kevin Werbach and Susan Crawford.

Here is an election day post from Mr. Werbach’s weblog, and an earlier one in criticism of John McCain’s technology plan.

Susan Crawford’s blog also yields two interesting items — one in re the "white spaces" issue, and the other Google’s deal with book publishers.

First impression: If the new FCC reflects the thinking of the transition team members, it’ll  be happy days for proponents of net neutrality.