Government Control of TV Broadcasters?

When the words "government control of broadcast television" come up, it is knee-jerk reaction to recoil in horror.  On one hand, television is regarded as a journalist watchdog to provide information to the populace and to gather their opinions.  Coming under government control would totally undermine the journalistic integrity of television, or any other form of media for that matter.  On the other hand, commercial television programming is dictated by audience reception, as popular programs survive and unpopular programs are discontinued.  Coming under government control would ignore the desires of the population because of certain elitist assumptions about what the people 'really' want or need to watch.  These are fair objections, but they are not necessarily the final words.  Here are some open questions: 

(1) Should television broadcasters be able to use the media to pursue their own political agenda? (see Confidence in Newspaper Reporting in Latin America and the links to the books at the bottom of this page)

(2) Should television broadcasters be able to show advertisements for harmful products such as cigarettes?

(3) Is it right for television broadcasters to engage in moral turpitude by showing sensationalistic programs with explicit sex and senseless violence to get higher ratings?

In the landmark 1969 Red Lion v. Federal Communications Commission decision by the United States Supreme Court, Justice Byron White observed:

Before 1927, the allocation of frequencies was left entirely to the private sector, and the result was chaos. It quickly became apparent that broadcast frequencies constituted a scarce resource whose use could be regulated and rationalized only by the Government. Without government control, the medium would be of little use because of the cacophony of competing voices, none of which could be clearly and predictably heard. Consequently, the Federal Radio Commission was established to allocate frequencies among competing applicants in a manner responsive to the public "convenience, interest or necessity.

A license permits broadcasting, but the licensee has no constitutional right to be the one who holds the license. [T]he people as a whole retain their collective right to have the medium function consistently with the ends and purposes of the First Amendment.  It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.

In a famous speech to the Radio Television News Directors Association, Edward R. Murrow said: "Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians around 50 or 100 years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. ... This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box."  Throughout much of  its history, television has been faulted with providing programs that are long on sex and violence, short on values and failing to either educate or stimulate.  As popular as the television medium is, there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction.

We will now cite some survey data from the 2001 TGI Brasil study.  This is a survey of 10,624 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old conducted by IBOPE during 2001.  Within this survey, the respondents are show the statement "Government should have more control over television broadcasters."  According to the TGI Brasil study, 43.1% of the respondents 'completely agreed' with this statement.  This is hardly a fringe minority.  

In the next chart, we show the distribution of agree rates by age/sex groups.  Systematically, the agree rates increase with age.  For young people who grew up with television for their entire lives, there may not be any baseline for comparison.  Older people who witnessed the evolution of television may be more sensitive on the impact of television on people's lives.  For any age group, we note that the agree rates is higher among women than men.  

(source: TGI Brasil 2001)

In the next chart, we show the agree rates by socio-economic level and education.  By socio-economic level, the agree rates are higher among the middle- and lower- classes.  By education, the agree rates decrease with educational levels.  

(source: TGI Brasil 2001)

Within the TGI Brasil study, there were also many other attitudinal statements about the television media.  When we cross-tabulated these attitudes against the item about government control of television broadcasters, four statements stood out.  These are:

The next charts show these cross-tabulations.  For example, among all persons 12-64 years old, 42.2% completely agreed with the statement "There is too much sex and nudity on television than I would like."  Among those who previously said that they completely agreed with the statement "Government should have more control over television broadcasters", 64.8% of them also completely agreed with the statement "There is too much sex and nudity on television than I would like."

The willingness to accept more government control reflects a recognition of the importance and influence of television together with a high degree of discontent with the current contents of television --- too much sex, too much violence and not enough educational programming.  Notwithstanding this wish to have some control over programming, it is by no means clear that this would come through government control.  Nobody seemed to be enamored with the types of state television that served totalitarian government regimes.  Even in democracies, public television seemed to produce programs that are designed to be safe, uncontroversial and lacking the vibrancy of commercial television.  Conversely, it is also clear that left to their own devices, commercial television will inject sex and violence to garner higher audience ratings and avoid the low-rated educational programming.  What gives ... ?

(source: TGI Brasil 2001)



 (posted by Roland Soong, 8/06/2002)

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