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Superbowls and Less Than Super Leadership

Nicholas Johnson

Interviewed by host Don Shelby
WCCO-AM, Minneapolis
February 11, 2004
4:10 Ė 4:30 p.m. CT

Note: The recording of this program was such that it is only possible to reproduce here a transcription of Nicholas Johnson's answers, without Don Shelby's questions (although they are normally relatively clear from the answers). The interview was prompted by the F.C.C. and network response to the public criticism of the Superbowl halftime entertainment in general, and the Janet Jackson episode in particular.

Well, I think what we are seeing is a lot of hypocrisy, quite frankly.

The networks know what they are doing.

I think if they want to start, if the FCC wants to start at this, they might take a look at commercials.  Forget about the Super Bowl, I just think commercials in general.

Thereís a lot of offensiveness on television.  My own view when I was there is you leave it alone and weíve got a lot of criminal laws involving obscenity and whatever and the Justice Department is there to enforce them and if they think it is important enough on their priority scale to devote resources to it, fine.  But, I think it gets a little questionable in First Amendment terms for the FCC to be making judgments about individual programs.

But, like I say, if they are going to do it, letís take a look at the offensive commercials, letís take a look at the offensiveness all across the board.  Take a look at the dance, not the final ending of it.  Thereís a lot to comment about.

I remember WCCO-TV years ago had a wonderful program I will never forget called ďA Death in the Family.Ē  You are probably too young to remember that.  Well, anyway, there was a solid bit of programming. It offered people an opportunity to give up television for a period of time and then study what happens to the family and so forth. There are programs that can really contribute to our understanding of ourselves and our society, and in that instance understanding of television itself.  That TV can do, but sadly those years are behind us.

You know I was on the commission from 1966 to 1973 as a commissioner and spent most of my time writing dissenting opinions about how horrible everything was and the corporate domination and the failure of the FCC to stand up to the industry. Now we look back on that as "the golden age of responsible FCC regulation and broadcasting" by contrast to what the FCC is doing today.  Itís kind of "last man out, turn off the lights." I donít know if they are doing much of anything. Then they pick up on something like this and stir as if in a fit of wakefulness, but for the most part itís just the major corporations doing whatever they want to do to maximize profit.

The legal standard is supposed to be the "public interest, convenience and necessity."

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Well, I think part of the problem for the industry is that people have been turning off television.  As you know, the network share of audience when I was on the commission was probably in the 90 percent range somewhere and now, last I saw, sort of mid-40s, is that right?  Yes, so thatís a substantial loss right there, and sadly I think the networks have often responded by kind of dumbing down and not doing serious stuff and cutting back on their overseas news bureaus. And laying off people is a way to increase profits. Then there are these outrageous reality shows that donít cost them much to make and they are shocking and so that gets an audience.  I think itís kind of sad.

I used to complain about Paley and Sarnoff Ė Paley the owner of CBS, and Sarnoff of NBC -- but you compare that with todayís crowd and you realize those two really had some sense of social responsibility.

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Itís remarkable how prescient members of Congress were back in the 1920s when radio was just beginning and the Radio Act was passed.  One member of Congress said if we should ever allow such enormous political and commercial power to fall into the hands of the few, then "woe be to those who would dare to disagree with them."  I mean, to be able to see that 75 years ago or whatever, thatís really remarkable.  But, he was absolutely right.

I remember when Time and Warner merged.  I have a colleague at the University of Iowa College of Law who has never seen a merger that he doesnít like, and Iíve never seen one I do like.  When Time and Warner merged, I asked one of the executives, "how come you guys want to merge anyway?"  He said, "Well Nick, some day thereíre going to be five firms that control all the media on Planet Earth and we intend to be one of them."

That is just so far from what Congress had in mind back in the 1920s.  We were talking then about individual owners of individual stations that would serve the local, little community. There was no notion that you would own whole strings of stations.  And even when I was on the FCC in the 1960s and 70s, we had a limit of 7-7-7 Ė you could own seven AM and seven FM and seven TV, but only five of them could be VHF stations. They had to be in separate cities and you couldnít have overlapping signals and so forth.

I though that was too much.  I mean as long as there are people out there who would like to operate a radio station and there is no radio station for them to have, why do you need to increase the number of stations that somebody can own?  The standard is, "will it serve the public interest, convenience and necessity"?

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Whatís happened is that we no longer have the number of people who were brought up in the journalistic tradition.  Many of the broadcast journalists who came into the business in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s came out of the newspaper industry, the Associated Press, that sort of thing.  And now, the top folks running this are, like you say, they are financiers, they are coming off of Wall Street, they are the 14 year old MBAs who are calling the shots.  In fairness to them, they simply have never had any training.  Theyíve never studied the First Amendment, they donít know about journalistic ethics.  Itís just not a part of their training or their background or anything they care about or are familiar with.

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This is a really tough question and it always has been and Iím not dodging it.  I would personally tend to be more open in terms of the range of what Iíd permit.  I donít think people need to watch television all day long. When it becomes offensive, you turn it off, as millions of Americans have.

But the fact is that we have a percentage of the population out there who really is offended by this material. Broadcasters are supposed to be licensed to serve the public interest. I donít think you can just turn your back on those who are offended and ignore these folks.

But, how you factor that in so that you balance all the various groups in America that have different views as to what they like to watch? How you deal with the needs and sensitivity of children of various ages.  You know we used to have standards about the programming in the early evening hours because children are still awake and watching television. But then, I pointed out to my colleagues on the Commission, I donít now remember the exact numbers, but I think itís something like two million kids under the age of twelve are watching television between midnight and 1 a.m.  So, you canít have a standard that is absolutely going to protect kids.

Itís a really tough one.  I guess all Iím saying is that if the FCC really wants to get into this, I think it needs to get into it on a 180 degree sweep and look at the whole thing, starting with offensive commercials, using young children in commercials, using sex to sell virtually everything.  Look at the violence. You know, itís ironic, in Sweden thereís much less concern about love between and man and a woman, but extraordinary concern about violence in society.  Violent programs that we accept here in America, they would absolutely ban from being shown at all.

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Thereís lots to talk about.  But, I am just so proud of you folks for talking about it at all when we weíve got such widespread censorship across the media with regard to issues affecting the media.  So, Iím still proud of WCCO and I wish you guys well.