Dec 28, 2020 - Economy & Business

"Trumptalk' may outlast Trump

Illustration of a speech bubble in the shape of President Trump's head
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump's brash communication style — combined with a societal shift towards streaming, where there are no regulatory restrictions on speech — has forced the entire media industry to present information in a more candid and less polished way.

Why it matters: It’s no longer uncommon to hear cable anchors use foul language or for TV or radio personalities to make indecent remarks on air. Now that the standard has been set, it’s hard to see how networks and news outlets could go back to their postured presentations of the past.

Driving the news: Beginning with Trump's campaign in 2015, networks had to consider how to cover obscenities associated with his speech.

  • The Access Hollywood tape forced networks to grapple with how to cover Trump remarks that were newsworthy, but not previously considered acceptable for broadcast television.
  • When The Washington Post reported in 2018 that Trump asked a group of lawmakers why the U.S. should protect immigrants from “shithole countries,” networks again faced a difficult decision about how to report about that language.
  • The Federal Communications Commission, for example, received complaints about both NBC and CNN referencing that word in their coverage.

This year's barrage of unusual behavior and events also pushed networks to throw previously-held standards out the window.

  • Following the nightmare first debate between Trump and Joe Biden, CNN's Dana Bash told millions of viewers, "That was a shit show."
  • CNN also reported on a secret recording of Melania Trump in which she swore multiple times.

Yes, but: Not all consumers are comfortable with the changing standards, which has been made evident in the complaints still being flagged to the FCC.

Be smart: Compared to previous administrations, the FCC under the Trump administration has been less focused on going after broadcasters publicly for speech complaints, and more focused on issues like rural broadband expansion.

  • The FCC’s last major enforcement was during the Obama administration, when the agency proposed a $325,000 fine against a Roanoke, Va. TV station for including a sexually explicit clip in a story about an adult film star volunteering for the local rescue squad.
  • Parents Television Council president Tim Winter told Axios a $10,000 fine against a radio station for indecency early in FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's tenure was a "very effective shot across the bow" to broadcasters.

Our thought bubble: It could be that it's harder for this FCC to prioritize going after broadcasters for things like indecency or profanity when the president himself has shown his indifference, and when most consumers are getting more programming from streaming, where those rules don't apply.

  • Winter noted that even broadcast stations like CBS are moving content to their own streaming services where they don't have to adhere to the same standards.

The big picture: There was a time when major broadcasters feared the FCC's enforcement of obscenity rules, but those days seem long gone.

  • Howard Stern, for example, received one of the largest-ever FCC fines in the early 2000s for on-air indecency. Speaking to David Letterman on Netflix in 2018, he said that at the time "I felt like I was leading a revolution of sorts."

What's next: Today, big-name talent can dodge those types of restrictions by going digital, where the FCC doesn't have the same jurisdiction to enforce rules because consumers get the content from the sources directly — not via publicly-owned airwaves.

  • Stern, for example, left traditional radio in 2006 and joined digital radio company SiriusXM instead. He recently renewed with the company for hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years.
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