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FCC Smut Rules Rattle Hollywood

Mar 20, 2006  •  Post A Comment

David Goodman, executive producer of Fox’s animated comedy “Family Guy,” escaped the indecency dragnet that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin cast around the television industry last week.

The FCC gave a pass to a 2005 episode of Mr. Goodman’s show that revolved around the lead character’s concern that his penis was smaller than his son’s. Broadcasters whose shows included teen orgies, open-front dresses and scripts salted with the S-word didn’t fare as well, generating fines of more than $4.5 million in Mr. Martin’s first attack on television indecency.

Producers and broadcasters are left to read between the lines of the FCC’s rulings to chart the new boundaries of what is acceptable for the public airwaves. As fines dampen broadcast networks’ demand for edgier fare, producers and viewers may defect to cable and satellite networks, which remain free of official indecency oversight.

“It seems crazy,” Mr. Goodman said. “I have kids, and there are some things on television that are questionable, but the rules that they are extending don’t seem to be logical or consistent.”

The fines-the largest set of indecency penalties ever imposed by the FCC at one time-signal that Mr. Martin will pick up where predecessor Michael Powell left off in the decency campaign.

With the recent addition of Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, Mr. Martin has the majority needed to further his campaign. Ms. Tate last week made clear that she takes indecency enforcement seriously.

“Not only is this the law but it also is the right thing to do,” Ms. Tate said in a statement.

Another Republican, Robert McDowell, is waiting for Senate confirmation of his nomination to the FCC, an addition that will strengthen Mr. Martin’s hand.

The indecency fines fill in the outline of Mr. Martin’s moral agenda for the FCC. A Republican who was special assistant to President Bush prior to his appointment to the FCC,, Mr. Martin last year threatened pay TV companies with the specter of per-channel pricing, finessing them into offering new packages of channels featuring family-friendly networks.

Since then, the FCC has issued a report supporting so-called a la carte pricing, indicating Mr. Martin may continue to use the issue as a lever in lieu of direct regulatory control over cable networks’ programming decisions.

“I don’t think more regulation is in the best interest of anybody in the equation when it comes to multichannel television,” said Sean Cunningham, president and chief executive of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau. “I don’t think more regulation is good when it comes to content potentially limiting consumer choice.”

Mr. Cunningham said he doubts the crackdown on broadcasters will necessarily make cable a bastion of less-restricted shows.

The FCC fines mark a victory for The Parents Television Council in its campaign to clean up the airwaves.

“The airwaves must remain safe for families when children are likely to be in the audience,” said Tim Winter, PTC executive director. “Those who violate the public trust are breaking the law and must be punished accordingly.”

CBS and NBC Universal, both stung by Mr. Martin’s indecency fines, indicated they plan to sue to have the penalties overturned. The FCC last week rejected CBS’s appeal of the $550,000 charge levied after singer Janet Jackson’s breast was bared during the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl.

Though the fines have had a chilling effect on broadcast TV programming, the FCC fines didn’t provide a clear roadmap of what was out of bounds, said Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media.

As part of the fines issued last week, Mr. Martin’s agency hit CBS’s 111 affiliates with more than $3.6 million in fines for their airing of a December 2004 episode of drama “Without a Trace.” The show’s depiction of an orgy crossed the line, the agency said.

The FCC fined NBC Telemundo’s KWHY-TV in Los Angeles for its airing of a Spanish-language movie, “Con El Corazon en La Mano,” which depicted a woman being “savagely attacked and raped.”

A movie aired by KTVI-TV in St. Louis, “The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper,” drew a fine for its use of the S-word in multiple variants, including horses***, bulls***, owls***, and holy s***.

“The FCC seems to have a big issue with defecation,” Mr. Goodman said.

“The Fernando Hidalgo Show” on WJAN-CA in Miami generated a fine because a female guest’s open-front dress exposed her breasts, which were partly covered by jewelry. Music videos broadcast on WSJU-TV in San Juan, Puerto Rico, drew fines because of its depictions of women simulating sex acts.

The agency’s laid out one bright line: the S-word joins the F-word as presumptively indecent.

Christopher Lisotta and James Hibberd contributed to this report.