Indecency on D.C.’s Radar

Feb 2, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Do four-letter words warrant six-figure fines for broadcasters who can’t bleeping keep them off the air?
That’s just one of the questions to which Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., wants answers by Feb. 3 from NBC Chairman and CEO Bob Wright, Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman, CBS Television President and CEO Leslie Moonves and ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau.
The Big 4 networks’ lawyers and lobbyists watched from the sidelines last week as Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chaired the House Energy and Commerce telecommunications subcommittee’s scrutiny of the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement of broadcast indecency rules.
However, Rep. Dingell, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is more interested in why the FCC enforcement bureau decided that the declaration, “This is really, really f**king brilliant” by U2’s Bono, was not obscene. The FCC did not issue a fine because it ruled the singer did not use the word in a sexual sense on NBC’s live broadcast of the 2003 Golden Globes Awards.
Rep. Dingell didn’t get around to asking how the S-word uttered by Diane Keaton after she won a Golden Globe on Jan. 25 was broadcast live to East Coast audiences. But he wants to know how the “preventive mechanisms” at NBC failed to bleep Bono.
He didn’t mention Cher’s use of the F-word on Fox’s live broadcast of the December 2002 Billboard Music Awards, but he did want to know why Fox Broadcasting failed to bleep the F- and S-words that Nicole Richie uttered during the 2003 live Billboard broadcast.
Verbiage Matters
He wants to put on the record how NBC, Fox, CBS and ABC feel about allowing the FCC to increase the fines for “obscene, indecent or profane content,” to impose per-utterance, rather than per-broadcast penalties, and to use their power to revoke repeat offenders’ licenses.
The networks are taking it seriously. ABC has begun discussions with the Motion Picture Academy about instituting a delay of the Oscars feed Feb. 29. CBS plans its usual delay of several seconds with the live Grammys on Feb. 8.
At least some network executives are likely to be front and center at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing tentatively scheduled for Feb. 11. The title of the hearing, to be chaired by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is “Protecting Children From Violent and Indecent Programming.” The scope of the hearing was still under discussion late last week.
If there are witnesses from platforms other than broadcast TV, the networks will feel less like the Velcro-wrapped pinata du jour. Some believe a lot of this has to do with an election year in which numerous hard-fought issues, from TV station ownership caps to familiar family values, are attaching themselves to the uproar over some naughty words neither watchdog groups nor broadcasters were happy to hear on the air.
The irony is, of course, that viewers need only jump to basic cable or premium cable to hear much more colorful language on a regular basis. The networks broadcast over the airwaves and reach a general audience, so they alone face scrutiny over inappropriate language and images.
Fox Networks Group President Tony Vinciquerra recently went public with Fox’s plans to lay down the no-potty-mouth law to stars who are “trying to impress their friends” and to the producers of live awards programs. He said Fox might even start a program five minutes early to guarantee censors a safety net.
He said if talent continues to act out, it could mean the end of live prime-time programming on the network rather than have the network risk “millions in fines” and be forced to defend the licenses of Fox-owned stations. “Fox has $15 billion in television stations, and we’re not going to put that at risk,” he said.
Both the recent Globescast and Billboard show were on 10-second and five-second delays, respectively. That offending words slipped through the fingers on the bleep button is proof to some that a system so reliant on humans cannot be infallible. To others it underscores NBC’s argument that the use of a delay is taken by some stars as license to curse.
Even New York-based “Live With Regis and Kelly,” which for 15 years has managed to keep its syndicated hour a safer-than-safe place for Middle America to meet otherwise edgy stars, had to spot-clean its Jan. 26 show for later time zones after Jack Osbourne used the S-word.
Many broadcasters feel they are being singled out because no politician ever lost votes by beating up on networks. However, the tenor of their comments last week was less grudging and more subdued.
The broadcasters’ position is that no part of the telecommunications industry spends more or works harder than their standards-and-practices departments to, as one network executive put it, “do the right thing.”
The day before the Upton hearing, the FCC proposed only its second-ever fine for indecent TV programming: a $27,500 fine against Young Broadcasting’s KRON-TV in San Francisco, which was the result of a shot of the titular body part by a member of the “Puppetry of the Penis” troupe. It also announced a $715,000 fine against Clear Channel Communications for airing indecent radio programming on four Florida stations.
The Bush administration has endorsed Rep. Upton’s bill, which also would raise the maximum fine for a continuing series of indecent broadcasts from $300,000 to $3 million. It may be beefed up even more to encourage the revocation of licenses of repeat violators.
And there are hints that the FCC, which prohibits indecent material on broadcast TV stations before 10 p.m., and the networks may have to grapple with the networks’ long-accepted practice of starting prime time at 7 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones, which puts the networks’ most mature programs on the air at 9 o’clock.
Brent Bozell, the president of the Parents Television Council that mobilized 217 of the 234 complaints received by the FCC after some 20.1 million people saw the Bono-Golden Globes incident, attributes the traction the obscenity issue has gained to “the nonsensical, moronic decision that came out of the FCC saying the F-word was OK as an adjective but not as a verb.”
Mr. Bozell, one of four witnesses at last week’s Upton hearing, wants the FCC to investigate and punish more offenders. He noted that the regulatory agency still hasn’t ruled on the case of the 2002 Billboard broadcast on Fox, though Cher used the F-word as a verb.
“She said `f**k ’em. She was clearly in violation. It’s our airwaves, not theirs,” Mr. Bozell said. “They’re the invited guests on those airwaves, and then the FCC turns around and says we’ll reward them for their misbehavior by giving them more stations. That’s when there’s outrage that starts boiling.”
And that outrage, not election-year posturing, he said, is what has given a perennial (albeit with a more extreme spin) issue unexpected traction.
Mr. Bozell does not sympathize with local stations, whether owned by the networks or merely affiliates, that find their broadcast licenses in jeopardy for carrying network programming that runs afoul of FCC standards.
“Tough luck. Take responsibility for it. It’s not my problem, it’s yours. Those are community standards you have to abide by as an affiliate, and you’re abusing them as an affiliate by putting [problematic programs] on the air.”
Post-Newsweek Stations President Alan Frank said NBC’s defense of what happened at the 2003 Globes was “rational.” He hopes the broadcast industry will handle this itself.
“I think we can police what we need to police ourselves,” Mr. Frank said. “As a broadcaster I don’t mind having a higher standard than some others, because that somewhat makes us special. We are local. We’re in the neighborhood. We know our community. I don’t mind any of that. That’s OK. I think you just have to be intelligent about it.
“If you try to have an intelligent policy, then you can have an intelligent policy,” he said. “If all you’re trying to do is buy off a few groups, that’s a different question.”