Decent viewing or decent viewers?
Reno television station KREN, which broadcasts on Channel 27, is running a political TV spot asking viewers to help it get authority to censor network programs before they get to the living room.

The spot asks viewers to contact Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign and ask them to support legislation called the “broadcast decency enforcement act.” The measure has already passed the House on a 391-22 vote. Nevada Rep. Jon Porter voted for the measure, but Reps. James Gibbons and Shelley Berkley were not recorded as voting. George Bush has promised to sign the measure if it is passed.

KREN manager Fernando Acosta could not be reached for comment, but this is part of the text of the KREN spot: “Are you outraged by the profanity and indecency on network television? We are too. Broadcast TV used to be a haven for family viewing, but not anymore. Congress [originally] gave local broadcasters the right to reject indecent network programming. But the networks have virtually stripped away the ability of the local affiliates, like KREN, to preview and reject objectionable content. If we do so, we risk losing our network affiliation and our station. Please call your senator today and ask them to support the broadcast decency enforcement act.”

The station’s stance represents a break from traditional industry practice, which holds that viewers can decide for themselves what to watch and employ the on/off switch to enforce their decisions, decency thus being decided by viewers. The bill gained momentum from the Justin Timberlake/Janet Jackson routine at the Super Bowl.

Affiliate stations have usually been known for blocking network programming less for reasons of taste than for political or other considerations. During the 1960s civil-rights period, Southern stations often blocked network programs they felt would offend white viewers, such as a famous 1968 NBC program in which British singer Petula Clark touched Harry Belafonte on the arm. In 1975, some CBS affiliates refused to carry an interview with Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman because the network had paid him a reported $100,000, raising issues of checkbook journalism.

But the advent of the Fox network, with its leering approach to sex on “reality” shows and series like Boston Public, has pushed the boundaries of taste, and some other networks have responded by producing similarly lurid programs. But KREN is affiliated with the Warner Bros. Network, which is better known for family series like Seventh Heaven and Gilmore Girls and well-written series aimed at young audiences like Smallville. However, it has recently ventured into the reality show arena with programs like Class Reunion.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill on a unanimous vote that included Ensign. The measure emerged from the committee with nine amendments, including one that could reverse last year’s media ownership rules that encourage media concentration.

An amendment proposed by Sens. Ensign and Conrad Burns of Montana would allow the Federal Communications Commission to consider “ability to pay” in imposing any fines, but Ensign killed his own amendment in order to get the bill out of committee.

Sharyn Stein, an aide to Senator Reid, says he “strongly supports legislation to protect children from indecency on television.” But she said whether the current measure is the vehicle to do that is not clear. “The bill is still working its way through, and some people want to attach, shall we say, non-germane amendments, so we’re going to have to wait and see the final version.”