The recent decisions of "shock jock" Howard Stern and super-executive Mel Karmazin to leave their old realm of broadcast media in favor of the new realm of satellite radio are indicators of things to come, entertainment-wise.
Like the country itself, the media are dividing into a conservative red zone and a liberal blue zone.
"Red" media are the broadcasters, both television and radio, overseen by the Federal Communications Commission. And the FCC, under pressure from conservative constituencies, has used its regulatory power to run Stern off radio air. Now, as it levies fines against the networks for naughty incidents -- singer Bono's use of the "f" word, Janet Jackson's exposed breast, and soon, maybe, Nicollete Sheridan's fallen-away locker-room towel -- the FCC seeks a similar "cleanup" of the television airwaves.
Yet even as the old media became more "family friendly," there's little to stop newer media from becoming bluer -- as nasty as they want to be.
Such a split in entertainment has happened before. In the 1960s, both movies and TV offered pretty much the same fare -- no sex and no gory violence. Aside from a few "art" movies, the material was interchangeable. The problem was, the movies were losers. Given a choice between watching bland fare at the Rialto or bland fare on the Magnavox, people figured they might as well just stay home.
So the movies upped the ante. They went racier, bloodier and sexier, traveling into territory that television couldn't follow. Why? Because whereas the movies were voluntarily self-regulated, TV was involuntarily regulated by the FCC. In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America launched its rating system, under which every kind of movie would receive a letter-label, based on the maturity level of its themes and depictions.
The ratings worked brilliantly from the point of view of the studios. They could make just about any movie they wished, so long as it had a label. A similar system was put in place for music. In 1985, the Recording Industry Association of America established its own rating system. But there was less joy in television-ville, where the FCC patrolled, ready to shut down any too-wild party. To make matters worse for the broadcasters, cable exploded to the point where "hot" stuff on HBO was just a click away.
No wonder, then, that broadcasters have kept pushing the envelope. So far, at least, they calculate that the cost of FCC fines is less than the cost of seeing more of their audience flee to other media. But, as radio-man Stern discovered, the FCC always wins if it wants to. In this political climate, expect a crackdown on TV, too.
Stern is crying all the way to the bank. Soon to be on Sirius, unhampered by FCC oversight, Stern will be able to say whatever he wishes. And his $500-million contract indicates that Sirius -- now helmed by Karmazin -- is counting on Stern to bring a hefty audience with him to the uncharted territory of pay-radio.
So here's the future: The FCC makes sure broadcasters stay "red." Meanwhile, everything else -- including the Internet -- gets bluer.
James P. Pinkerton is a Newsday columnist.