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FCC: Profanity During News Not Indecent

Nov 7, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The Federal Communications Commission reversed course on two indecency cases late Monday, saying in one it wouldn’t challenge bad language during a network news interview with an entertainer.

The FCC ruled that the use of the word “bullshitter” on CBS’s “The Early Show” wasn’t indecent because it occurred during a news segment — even though that interview was with a contestant on the network’s reality show “Survivor: Vanuatu.” In the other case, the agency dismissed complaints about episodes of ABC’s “NYPD Blue” on procedural grounds.

The two cases were among several the FCC had used in March to try to illustrate what does and does not constitute indecency. Monday’s ruling in the “Early Show” case is unlikely to lay the issue to rest, as FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called the decision “arbitrary, subjective and inconsistent.”

The FCC reaffirmed its finding of indecency in two other cases late Monday, ruling that Cher’s use of the F-word during the broadcast of the 2002 Billboard Music Awards on Fox-owned station WTTG-TV in Washington and Nicole Richie’s language during the “2003 Billboard Music Awards” broadcast on a number of Fox stations was indecent.

The FCC’s March 15 Omnibus Indecency Order combined a number of complaints, levying fines for some violations. In the “Early Show” and “NYPD Blue” cases, the commission called the broadcasts indecent but didn’t impose a monetary penalty. Stations and station groups challenged the findings in an appellate court, arguing that the FCC hadn’t given them the chance to respond, and the agency agreed to reconsider the four cases.

The FCC announced the reversals minutes before midnight, and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin issued a statement saying that the the “Early Show” case troubled him because the profanity occurred during the show’s interview with a contestant on “Survivor.” Still, the FCC deferred to CBS’s contention that the interview of an entertainment show celebrity on a news program was a news segment that shouldn’t be subject to indecency rules.

“It is oftentimes difficult to distinguish between true news programming and infotainment. While I found the interview with a contestant on ‘Survivor: Vanuatu’ to be extremely close to that line, I believe the Commission’s exercise of caution with respect to news programming was appropriate in this instance,” Mr. Martin said in a statement.

Mr. Martin said the Billboard decisions should be upheld. In one of those, the agency examined comments by Ms. Richie, who dropped the F-word in a dialogue with Paris Hilton during the awards show. Referring to the pair’s reality program, “The Simple Life,” Ms. Richie said, “Why do they even call it ‘The Simple Life?’ Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse? It’s not so f***ing simple.”

The FCC decision in those cases was consistent with past decisions, Mr. Martin said.

“The Commission has always held that the use of certain words could be indecent,” he said. “Consistent with that precedent, this order affirms that the use of the F- and S-words in the 2002 and the 2003 Billboard Music awards was indeed indecent. Hollywood continues to argue they should be able to say the F-word on television whenever they want. Today, the Commission again disagrees.”

Mr. Adelstein said it’s unfair to focus on a few seconds of the Billboard Music Awards without looking at the show as a whole.

“The commission should consider the totality of the program rather than limit our consideration to an isolated programming segment,” he said.

With regard to “The Early Show” decision, Mr. Adelstein argued that there isn’t necessarily a news exemption to indecency. The agency’s willingness to exempt the program and defer to CBS’s representation on what is news “will surely create unintended consequences in future cases,” he said.