FCC Does A Bit Of Extortion Horse-Trading With Univision On Indecent Programming

from the hmm,-it-smells-like-fish-in-here dept

It’s no secret that one of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s pet issues is indecent TV programming, and he’s not afraid to use some questionable tactics to try and get what he wants. For instance, he led the FCC to reverse a long-standing position and say that a-la-carte programming was a great idea, which was basically an implied threat to cable operators that if they didn’t offer so-called “family tiers” of inoffensive channels, he’d force them to offer it — since, of course, the FCC doesn’t have the power to regulate material on cable channels. Now, the FCC has gotten Univision to agree to pay a $24 million fine for not showing enough educational programming (and, in part, claiming that a soap opera about twin 11-year-old girls qualified as educational). In exchange, the FCC will sign off Univision’s $12.3 billion sale to some private-equity companies — making this look more like enforcement by ransom than anything else. While Martin and his cronies are certainly free to determine their own regulatory priorities (and we’re free to disagree with them), things get a little sketchy when he tries to advance them by what could pretty easily be mistaken for extortion. If he thinks indecent programming is a significant issue, that’s fair enough. But using it as the basis by which a wide range of largely unrelated regulatory decisions are made is taking things a bit too far. This decision also doesn’t bode well for XM and Sirius, who should expect to have to make some concessions on indecency to get their merger through Martin’s FCC.

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Comments on “FCC Does A Bit Of Extortion Horse-Trading With Univision On Indecent Programming”

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DV Henkel-Wallace (profile) says:

what's the big deal with bundling anyway?

I have never understood the big deal with bundling (apologies if this is off topic). If I can only buy the disney channel as part of a bundle that includes ESPN for $35/month, then the disney channel costs me $35. I don’t read the copyright page or endpapers of a book but it doesn’t bother me that they’re there. Nor do I care that the iPod includes support for some sort of games. Who cares?

(prices and channel examples made up for the example).

Mr. Econ Man says:

Re: what's the big deal with bundling anyway?

I’m kind of ambivalent about bundling.

The big deal with bundling is that, because most cable companies have an effective monopoly on non-broadcast/non-satellite programming in their franchise market, they are in essence, forcing people to buy channels that they do not want, and charging them as if they did want them. The cable companies choose the channels included in each of their bundles based on trying to get us to upgrade to get the few channels in each bundle that appeal to us.

Then they cite all of the channels in each tier/bundle when they make their cases to the local regulators for the continuingly increasing fees they charge for essentially the same service (the same meaning I watch the same channels as I did five years ago, but I’m paying 30% more for it, even though technology should be pushing cable service prices down).

This makes it look like they’re providing lots of new channels (even though most of the new ones are of the QVC variety and of similar value to most of us as QVC), which justifies their raising their prices.

Now, in defense of bundling, there are a lot of channels/programming that wouldn’t see the light of day if they weren’t included in a bundle, because almost no one would pay for them (think the various permutations of C-SPAN, the QVC-type channels, the golf channel, the Outdoor Living Channel, etc.). Some of these are channels most of us might watch for an hour every other month, which most likely means we wouldn’t buy it if it were priced separately, even though we occasionally do watch them and like having them there on those rare occasions when we feel like watching them. Since too few viewers would pay for these channels if they were sold separately, that is programming that would probably not be produced otherwise. This is why I think bundling is not ALL bad.

Anonymous Coward (user link) says:

Where does the FCC find these uptight arbiters of what is appropriate for me to buy with my own money and someone to produce and sell with their own private property?

We are not talking about broadcast media here, we are taking about a point to point transaction, something that is as private as a phone call – oh well, yeah right.

As the line between the internet and broadcast entertainment blur – expect these busybodies to try to control the internet.

Tyshaun says:

Re: Re:

Where does the FCC find these uptight arbiters of what is appropriate for me to buy with my own money and someone to produce and sell with their own private property?

We are not talking about broadcast media here, we are taking about a point to point transaction, something that is as private as a phone call – oh well, yeah right.

As the line between the internet and broadcast entertainment blur – expect these busybodies to try to control the internet.

Actually, Univision is a cable AND broadcast provider, so FCC does have the ability to regulate it. In most of the country Univision is available via cable, but in a lot of larger hispanic markets, like Miami, LA, NY, etc, Univision is a broadcast network.

Carlo, how come you didn’t mention this fact (the dual nature of the Univision affiliates) because your article makes it sound like the FCC has no jurisdiction over Univision at all, when quite clearly it does?

Jon Healey (user link) says:

It's a kidvid issue, not decency

You’re completely off base on this one, Carlo. This isn’t about some vaguely defined decency standard. Congress required over-the-air broadcasters to air at least 3 hours of educational programming for children each week. Univision was obviously violating the law, and in doing so violated the terms of its broadcast licenses. Before the FCC signs off on any proposed mergers involving license holders, it (rightly) requires them to have their legal houses in order. You may dislike the amount of the fine, but aside from that, the commission didn’t do anything unusual here.

The infamous Joe says:


I’m still fuzzy on how a group created to regulate frequencies gained the power to perform censorship– or how we allow censorship in the first place.

I don’t care what their doublespeak name for it is, it’s still censorship, and it’s still double plus un-good.

Speaking of decency– if everyone stops saying “shit” and starts says “poop” instead– wouldn’t they, then, have to censor the word “poop”? It’s just letters that make up a word that represent an idea, right?

Maybe I over-simplify?

Greg Andrew says:

This entry is the rare example of a misleading post on Techdirt. This agreement has nothing to do with cable tv or indecency. Univision is a national broadcast network. It often has higher ratings than the CW these days. And, as a broadcast network, its stations are required to broadcast 3 hours of childrens informational programming each week. Often, stations broadcast programs that don’t exactly meet the definition, but in this case, Univision’s program wasn’t even close to meeting that definition.

Blackmail? Maybe. But otherwise Univision would have been fined even more, and they would have had to appeal the fine in court

Emily says:

You raise some good points in your post. Here are some facts that you might find interesting. An overwhelming majority of Americans (91%) object to government deciding what they are able to watch on television. When activists talk about protecting children instead of parents—here’s what they’re talking about: sixty-eight percent of the country’s 110 million television-viewing households do not include children under age 18 and households with children have different challenges to face due to the varying ages of kids within each family. Currently, there are 11 million households with children age 6-11, 15 million households with children age 0-5 and 9 million households with children 12-17.

TV has come a long way from the days of three channels and rabbit ears antennas. Today’s TV audiences are putting to use broadband, DVRs, TV video on demand, iPods and cell phones to greatly expand their choices about what, when, where and how to watch TV. New technology means consumers have more selection than ever and more control than ever over what they see on TV. We all have more choices and parents have more tools to ensure their kids only see what’s right for them. Let’s let parents decide—not government, for all of us.

There is more information to be found at http://www.televisionwatch.org

|333173|3|_||3 says:

3 hours: easy

even on terrestrial TV, they could broadcast the required 3 hours of Childrens programming at 3-6AM (ncluding lots of ads), and broadcast the same programmes every 2 years or so. On teh Cable version of the channel, they could replace this with worthwhile conent if they liked, but that is not really necessary. THius sort of thing is plain stupidity.

lostingotham says:


In fact, the FCC lacks the statutory authority to impose fines based on violations of this type. So, lacking that authority, it simply holds up licensing or (as in this case) merger approval proceedings that should be purely ministerial until the victim “voluntarily” coughs up some dough.

In this case, I think Martin may have taken on more than he counted on. Univision’s new owners will pay (even though they’re not the ones who committed the “violation” in the first place), but expect them to have long memories.

Hispanics are an increasingly important demographic, politically, and Univision is the #1 opinion-maker in the Hispanic community. Were it me, I would make it very clear to every aspiring President that if he appointed Martin to so much as assistant dog-catcher, there’d be a steady drum-beat of criticism of his administration on Spanish television. Good press is far more valuable than any bureaucrat, so I’d bet Mr. Martin would find himself retired, pronto.

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