Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell said if the industry leaves it to the government to set strict standards for broadcast decency, they won't like the result.
"You do not want to ask the government to write a `Red Book' of dos and don'ts," Powell told the gathering organized by the National Association of Broadcasters. "I understand the complaint about knowing where the line is, but heavier government entanglement through a `dirty conduct code' will not only chill speech, it may deep-freeze it. It might be an ice age that would last a very long time."
NAB President Eddie O. Fritts Jr. said a code was mentioned by most speakers at the daylong seminar, and would be seriously considered. He said the discussion would continue at the NAB's annual meeting later this month.
The closed-door session attracted 350 broadcasters, many of them owners of just a few television or radio stations. The four major networks — CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox — are not members of the association, though executives of ABC and Fox did speak at lunch.
Viacom Inc., which owns CBS as well as the Infinity Broadcasting radio chain, employs controversial radio host Howard Stern. The FCC recently proposed fining Infinity $27,500 for a Stern show, and Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest radio chain, suspended him from its six stations that carry the program.
"A lot of broadcasters had never approached the line," Fritts said. "The issue was what about those who have and what have they wrought in the industry."
Philip Lombardo, chairman of Citadel Communications Ltd., which owns television stations in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, said most broadcasters already stayed far below any indecency line and would not be curtailed by any code.
"Most broadcasters currently operate within a code," Lombardo said. "They understand what is the proper programming and the proper response for their community."
The original code was dropped in 1982 under Reagan administration pressure, on both antitrust and First Amendment grounds.
Commissioner Michael Copps joined Powell in urging the broadcasters to reinstate it.
"I believe the industry could come together and craft a new code, perfectly able to pass court muster, and one that would serve the needs of businesses as well as those of concerned families," Copps said.
The NAB scheduled its first-ever Summit on Responsible Programming in response to proposed legislation raising the maximum fine for indecency from $27,500 to $500,000. The broadcasters also were responding to public outrage over the now-infamous Feb. 1 Super Bowl halftime show, which ended with singer Justin Timberline exposing Janet Jackson's right breast to millions of TV viewers. The incident generated more than 500,000 complaints.
Fritts said the issue will be around for a while. "It's not going to be something that is going to be resolved in 30 days," he said.
Others fear that efforts to curb indecency will run afoul of the First Amendment.
As Powell appeared earlier Wednesday at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., decried what he called an "assault on freedom of speech."
"I think people should have the ability to say what they please and I have the ability not to listen to them," Serrano said.