Networks, Affils to Appeal Indecency Rulings

Apr 14, 2006  •  Post A Comment

In the first of what promises to be a long series of related challenges, the Big 4 TV networks, their affiliates and Hearst Argyle Television announced Friday that they have asked federal appeals courts to overturn key aspects of the Federal Communications Commission’s March 15 indecency rulings.

The networks said the rulings would have a particularly negative impact on live news programming and other important aspects of the television business.

The agency rulings at issue held that fleeting utterances of profanities on CBS’s “Early Show,” Fox’s coverage of the Billboard Music Awards and an episode of ABC’s “NYPD Blue” were in violation of agency indecency prohibitions — even though no agency fines were handed down for the programming.

“NYPD Blue” raised an issue for the FCC because, while it airs at 10 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific time zones, it airs at 9 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones, and included use of variations of the S-word. FCC regulations prohibit broadcasters from airing indecent programming between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Though no NBC shows were involved in the cited rulings, the Peacock Network signed on to the challenge because network officials fear the FCC precedent, if affirmed, would be bad news for all network programming.

“This new and expansive definition of indecency is certain to chill the speech of broadcasters,” NBC and its affiliates said in a joint filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York.

In a joint statement, the broadcasters, representing more than 800 TV stations, said: “We strongly believe that the FCC rulings issued on March 15 that we are appealing today are unconstitutional and inconsistent with two decades of previous FCC decisions.

“In filing these court appeals we are seeking to overturn the FCC decisions that the broadcast of fleeting, isolated — and in some cases unintentional — words rendered these programs indecent.

“The FCC overstepped its authority in an attempt to regulate content protected by the First Amendment, acted arbitrarily and failed to provide broadcasters with a clear and consistent standard for determining what content the government intends to penalize. Furthermore, the FCC rulings underscore the inherent problem in growing government control over what viewers should and shouldn’t see on television.

“Parents currently have the ability to control and block programming they deem inappropriate for family viewing from entering their homes through the use of the v-chip and cable and satellite blocking technologies.”

In response, Tamara Lipper, an FCC spokeswoman, said the Supreme Court upheld an FCC decision more than 20 years ago that George Carlin’s legendary “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” monologue was indecent.

She said the networks are now arguing in their court challenges that they should be able to say two of those words. “The FCC is reviewing their filings and will defend its order,” Ms. Lipper said.

Also on Friday, the FCC said CBS challenged an agency decision to fine more than 100 CBS affiliates over a “Without a Trace” episode that the agency said crossed the line. In addition, the FCC said CBS has challenged the FCC’s $550,000 fine over the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

Said the FCC’s Ms. Lipper in a statement: “The episode of CBS’s ‘Without a Trace’ that the commission found to be indecent depicts a teen orgy as well as a teenage girl straddling (and apparently engaging in intercourse) with one boy while two others kissed her breast. Additionally, in its recent order the commission again rejected CBS’s argument that the broadcast of the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show was not indecent. That argument runs counter to commission precedent and common sense. The commission, however, will review any request for reconsideration.”