George Carlin must be chuckling in his grave.
The late stand-up comic in 1972 made an entire routine about seven words you can’t say on TV. In 2010, broadcast networks still avoid them. (If you don’t know them, they aren’t hard to find on the Web.) Yet for years, they have been battling the Federal Communications Commission over hefty fines the agency has doled out for airing obscenities since the Janet Jackson Super Bowl imbroglio of 2004.
Earlier this month, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected FCC’s indecency regulations as “unconstitutionally vague and chilling.”
The point of contention was primarily accidental utterances of, say, the F-word by celebrities such as Bono and Cher during live awards shows. In recent years, most (if not all) of that has been resolved by judicial use of a delay, allowing censors time to mute naughty words.
Broadcast networks have always had “standards and ‘practices,” a moving target that still keeps breasts pixelated and many bad words bleeped. Some activities are now more acceptable than they were 10 or 20 years ago, such as same-sex kissing, but that’s more reflective of societal shifts. This ruling probably won’t change much in the short term because networks have little incentive to alienate advertisers and viewers, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, policy director for Media Access Project, a non-profit law firm representing creative artists.
“It’s a classic chicken-and-egg conversation,” said Jeffrey Stepakoff, a Kennesaw State University dramatic writing teacher who has written for shows such as “The Wonder Years” and “Dawson’s Creek.” “As writers, we want to create an accurate portrayal of what’s going on in people’s lives. At the same time, we don’t want to be offensive.”
The FCC oversees free TV networks such as ABC and NBC and AM/FM radio between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. It has no control over cable, YouTube or satellite radio. So it’s easy to understand why networks often feel aggrieved.
“We have been living in an unbelievable netherworld of ambiguity,” a network standards expert told The Hollywood Reporter. “This new ruling, if it’s upheld, lifts a cloud of uncertainty. It will make it easier to interpret the rules and not have to second-guess everything we want to put on air.”
The FCC has not decided its next move , a spokesman said. It could appeal the decision.
But as long as the agency is in legal limbo, its backlog of complaints keeps growing, much to the chagrin of the Parents Television Council, a vocal group against broadcast indecency.
“It’s frustrating that the FCC is not enforcing the law when it comes to issues other than fleeting expletives,” such as nudity and sexual deviance, said Dan Isett, PTC director of public policy.
Larry Wachs, morning co-host for the Regular Guys on Rock 100.5, lost his job at 96rock in 2004 a few months after the Janet Jackson controversy caused radio stations to clamp down on obscenities. He was actually trying to mock the FCC by airing dirty porn talk backwards. But a producer accidentally aired some of the talk over a radio ad while they were taping it live.
He and his partner Eric Von Haessler didn’t get into any trouble with the FCC, but 96rock let them go anyway.
Wachs was happy to hear the appeals court decision. “The FCC has been out of control,” he said. “It’s a bureaucratic nightmare with bad precedent on top of bad precedent. They’re getting their comeuppance.”
On Rock 100.5, the show has a 20-second delay, giving them plenty of time to expurgate a stray expletive or two. He said one pops up maybe once a day, usually out of the mouth of a caller.
Wachs said the government shouldn’t play referee. “We self police,” he said.