The Supreme Court yesterday issued a narrow decision that will do nothing to clarify how the Federal Communications Commission should regulate obscenity (especially the “fleeting” kind).
It’s effectively leaving the FCC to do so on their own, effectively forcing broadcast networks and AM/FM radio stations to double up efforts to keep themselves cleaner than their counterparts on Sirius/XM, the Web and cable TV.
The original complaints took nearly a decade to reach this point after bouncing up and down the judicial ladder. The only winners to date: attorneys working on the cases.
What were those complaints?
Remember when ABC’s “NYPD Blue” used to show the buttocks of people in prime-time TV? Maybe not, but one of those episodes, featuring a female actress’ exposed backside in 2003 for about seven seconds, generated numerous complaints. Ultimately, 45 stations were fined $27,500 each.
During the live Billboard Music Awards in December 2002, Cher used the “F-word” and Nicole Ritchie a variant of that word a year later on the same awards show Fox was cited but not fined.
This Supreme Court threw out the ABC fines, saying the FCC regulations were not specific enough at the time of the occurrences. The FCC later created tougher,more specific regulations about “fleeting expletives” and “nudity” following the Janet Jackson Super Bowl breast exposure in 2004.
The networks have been battling those fines and regulations ever since. In fact, they were asking the FCC to end all indecency regulation at all, something the Supreme Court was unwilling to address.
The reason the FCC used to regulate broadcast TV and AM/FM radio during certain hours was to protect children from certain types of indecency. But the FCC has no regulatory power over satellite radio, the Internet or cable television. The last time the Supreme Court addressed indecency on the airwaves was a 1978 Pacifica case regarding the airing of George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on TV.” At the time, 90% of TV viewing was through broadcast TV. Now on any given night, it’s more like 35 to 40 percent.
So even if the FCC starts aggressively going after the likes of ABC and CBS, it has no jurisdiction over ESPN, FX or MTV.
Currently, the FCC has not fined any TV or radio company in years, partly because of the pending court case. It has a backlog of more than 1.5 million complaints to sift through. (On example: Fox’s “Family Guy.”)
The Parents Television Council, the leading group watching over TV networks and their use of sex on TV, said it was pleased with the ruling.
“Once again the Supreme Court has ruled against the networks in their years-long campaign to obliterate broadcast decency standards,” said Tim Winter, chairman, to the L.A. Times. “Pacifica is still good law.”
To avoid “fleeting” curse words, both radio and TV stations now regularly tape delay live events to give censors time to bleep words out. Live events, in other words, are not really live anymore. The Regular Guys on Rock 100.5 delays at least 30 seconds.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk