While the recent Federal Communication Commission (FCC) rulings against three major television networks concern indecency, some UW media experts say the real story is in the politics.
The FCC ruled in March that the usage of the S- and F-words in broadcasts of the CBS News program The Early Show, Fox's Billboard Music Awards and the ABC police-hit NYPD Blue violated over-the-air indecency standards.
The ruling was motivated less by moral outrage than political maneuvering, said communications professor Don Pember.
"It's the Bush administration once again attempting to appease the conservatives, the 30 percent of our population who will still vote for him," Pember said, referencing the FCC's three Republican commissioners.
The indecency issue is a favorite in Congress because it wins votes, said Richard Kielbowicz, an associate professor of communications.
"It's so easy to get behind the 'clean-up-the-airwaves issue' when campaigning," said Kielbowicz. "I mean, who wants to come out in favor of protecting indecency?"
Last month CBS, Fox, Disney-owned ABC and its largest affiliate group, Hearst-Argyle Television Inc., appealed the FCC rulings in both New York and Washington D.C. federal courts.
While the offending language on NYPD Blue was scripted, both other incidents were attributed to spontaneous utterances. In the case of The Early Show, one guest -- a contestant from Survivor: Vanuatu, referring to another contestant in 2004 -- said the swear word. During the 2003 Billboard Music Awards, Nicole Richie asked Paris Hilton if she had ever tried to get cow [expletive] out of a Prada bag while both were presenting an award.
The FCC's March rulings also included an unprecedented fine of more than three million dollars for a simulated orgy during an episode of CBS's Without a Trace.
The majority of the complaints leading to these and other FCC rulings have come from the politically conservative Parent's Television Council, Pember said.
"The networks are spitting in the faces of millions of Americans by saying they should be allowed to air the F-word and S-word on television," said L. Brent Bozell, president of the council, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last month.
It's important to remember the FCC's rulings upheld federal law, said Dan Isett, the council's director of corporate and government affairs.
According to the FCC Web site, indecent material contains sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity. The courts have ruled indecent material cannot be completely banned, but should be prohibited between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to be watching.
The FCC bases enforcement actions on complaints filed by members of the community. In the cases of the three major television networks, the volume of complaints received was large enough to merit action, Isett said.
"It's an issue that resonates with people because, frankly, they're bombarded with it every night on their public airwaves," he said.
The courts uphold the First Amendment freedoms of cable programming and the Internet, Pember said, leaving those who fear U.S. culture is losing moral ground to focus on a medium they can control: network television.
Such distinctions between communication media may not necessarily be fair, Kielbowicz said.
"Unless the FCC looks at the context of the language and hits everybody with similar regulations, how is that fair to the networks?" he asked.
The competition from other entertainment media with fewer restrictions is a major issue in the indecency debate. Network companies have argued that the FCC's unclear standards force broadcasters to make increasingly conservative content choices.
Pember said he suspects the talent losses stemming from content restrictions concern networks more than monetary ones.
"No longer cutting-edge compared to movies and cable, the networks risk losing good writers and good producers," Pember said. "They must feel up against a wall in this regard."
Both professors said the vague and undefined nature of indecency regulations is the best defense the stations will have in court.
It is likely the courts will either send the rulings back to the FCC for reconsideration or rule in favor of the commission, Kielbowicz said.
"It would be a dream scenario if the courts protected First Amendment rights for TV broadcasting," said Pember, explaining the networks will probably argue that the indecency standards are no longer appropriate due to the increasingly graphic content of movies and other media.
Pember and Keilbowicz both said they are surprised by Americans' obsession with what's on television when what's happening in real life can be more alarming.
"The FCC should not be taking on the parental responsibility of monitoring television programming for possibly offensive material," Pember said.
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