Media crackdown chills marketers

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The Federal Communications Commission's crackdown on indecency in the media is casting a pall over content that could limit choices for advertisers.

While reducing racy content would also eliminate the danger of consumer backlash against advertisers, media buyers are concerned it could hurt broadcasters' ability to compete with cable and satellite media and make it more difficult to reach a mass audience.

"It has the potential of raising the average age of the network TV audience," said Allen Banks, exec VP-North American media director for Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi. "If [broadcast] TV becomes more bland and less edgy, it is a safer environment to be in, but could have less competitiveness when shows like [HBO's] `The Sopranos' have no limit."

"If there is a big crackdown, it could affect advertising," said Rich Hamilton, CEO of ZenithOptimedia Group. "A certain amount of provocative material is material viewers are interested in watching."

Advertising groups, meanwhile, fret that attempts to limit content over indecency concerns will quickly expand into limiting violent content, and they fear advertising regulation could follow.

ads `could be next'

"We are in it mainly because of the principle of government censorship of the media," said Dick O'Brien, exec VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. Advertisers, he cautioned, "could be next."

The furor was raised last week when the FCC, which has been under congressional pressure to act, announced three obscenity actions. First, it reversed a decision that rock star Bono's utterance of the term "f***ing brilliant" on NBC's telecast of the 2003 Golden Globe Awards show wasn't indecent because the word was used as an adverb in a nonsexual context. Despite the reversal, the FCC took no action against NBC.

It also proposed to fine a Clear Channel Communications subsidiary $55,000 for airing a radio show on two stations in which a host communicated with a couple engaged in sexual intercourse. And in the third action, it proposed fining one of Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting's stations in Detroit $27,500 for a Howard Stern show that included material the FCC deemed "lewd and vulgar." It also upheld a 4-year old, $7,000 fine against an Infinity Florida radio station.

The FCC action came a week after a Senate committee added a limit on media violence to legislation increasing fees for obscenity violations. It would require the FCC to determine whether the V-chip can be used to block violent programs and if it can't, institute action "to prohibit violent programming when children are likely to represent a substantial portion of the viewing audience."

Ad groups last week sent a letter to senators warning the legislation "raises very serious First Amendment concerns by placing the government in the role of chief national censor."

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