It won't be official until June 5 or so, but Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party will have far reaching implications, including a significant, if indirect, effect on the entertainment industry.
With Jeffords' defection, the Democrats take control of the Senate for the first time since 1994. Assumption of that control means the chairpersons of all Senate committees will change from Republican senators to Democrat, including the Commerce Committee. The Commerce Committee oversees all elements of communications in the United States, including the Federal Communication Commission.
Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), a colorful political veteran who ascended to his state's gubernatorial position in 1958 and entered the Senate in 1966, takes over as the committee's chairman.
Hollings has long been involved with the entertainment industry, and has passed meaningful legislation that governs both TV and radio. Hollings at the helm will certainly mean the Commerce Committee will tackle two issues of vital importance to the entertainment industry: TV's violence safe harbor act and TV/radio station ownership limits.
Andy Davis, Hollings' communications director said--in defense of the media's charges that the senator would "safe-harbor" the industry to death--that while Hollings "seeks to never be a heavy-handed regulator, the government should play some role in looking out for the public interest."
TV's Violence "Safe Harbor" Act
Hollings is a sponsor of The Children's Protection from Violent Programming Act, designed to shield America's children from what the he calls "well-documented, ill-effects of television violence."
The safe harbor legislation would require the FCC to study whether V-Chip technology and the content-based ratings system effectively meet the government interest in protecting children from the harms associated with their exposure to violent television programming. If the FCC finds them ineffective, the bill directs the agency to establish a safe harbor that would shunt violent programming to late-night hours.
In the interim, the bill directs the FCC to develop rules prohibiting the distribution of violent programming on television that cannot be blocked by the V-Chip.
"Research from Stanford University indicates that not only is there a correlation between violent programming on TV and violent anti-social behavior, but that the converse is true, as well. Limiting viewing of violence reduces that same antisocial behavior," Davis said.
"This is the most pragmatic way to address the issue."
Hollings recited a list of programs that have purportedly led to "copycat" incidences in a released statement, including a recent case of a Connecticut teen-ager who set another teen on fire in an apparent imitation of a stunt on MTV's Jackass. He also mentions incidents involving The Basketball Diaries and professional wrestling.
"How much copycat violence will it take?" Hollings' said in his statement. "How many violent acts will be committed, how much vandalism, destruction, injury and death has to occur before we act here in Congress? As we have seen in Littleton, Colo., and in Paducah, Ky., violence in our culture is begetting violence in our youth."
"I hope [the attention this bill gets] will send a larger message to the entertainment industry and that it will encourage a national dialogue about violence on television," concluded bill co-sponsor Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Ark.).
If the FCC determines that the V-Chip and ratings do not constitute an effective alternative measure of protection, then it must institute a safe harbor to prohibit violent programming during hours when children are likely to represent a substantial portion of the viewing audience.
A similar safe harbor currently exists with respect to "indecency" on broadcast television, which requires broadcasters to air indecent programming only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the indecency safe harbor is constitutional.
TV/Radio Ownership Limits
The 1996 Telecommunications Act, opposed by Hollings, lifted the ceiling on the number of radio stations a broadcaster could own nationally and raised the cap in local markets from ownership of four to as many as eight stations.
It was Hollings who made certain that although the ownership limits would be relaxed, a single company or television network could only own a limited number of stations. Hollings continues to work with the FCC to ensure that local and diverse programming is available to all citizens.
"Consolidation of news sources is a threat on democracy. It would become a consolidation of the national discourse, limiting the public's discussion on national issues. It would end the diversity of opinions in our national dialogue," Davis said.
In a related ripple, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), also will return to prominence, now as head of the Governmental Affairs Committee. Although not related to Governmental Affairs, the limelight of the position will give Lieberman a chance to trumpet his Hollywood Morality Code--remember his 2000 campaign platform?--from a new soapbox.