Indecency’s winding road, 1978-2006

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July 3, 1978
FCC v. Pacifica Foundation: The Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s right to ban indecent speech when children could be expected to be in the audience. Pacifica’s WBAI in New York had aired George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue in the afternoon of Oct. 30, 1973. Upshot: Confirmed both the FCC’s right to regulate indecent language and its definition of such speech as that which depicts “sexual or excretory activities or organs in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.” Indecent material falls short of obscenities, which are banned at all hours.

Aug. 28, 1995
“Safe harbor” for grownup material: New FCC indecency rules take effect, prompted by court decisions, establishing a “safe harbor” of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. local time, when children are presumably asleep and indecent material may be broadcast. Before 10, in the family-friendly zone, the FCC bans broadcast of obscene, profane or indecent material.

Feb. 1, 2004
Janet Jackson’s peep show: Michael Powell, FCC chairman at the time, had already begun a campaign to clean up the airwaves and Jackson’s exposed breast immediately became exhibit A in the effort. Upshot: Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” in the Super Bowl halftime show made broadcast indecency a front-page issue and spurred a huge jump in public complaints to the FCC, many generated by activist groups—more than 1.4 million in 2004, compared with fewer than 167,000 in 2003. It also fueled congressional efforts to raise FCC fine levels. CBS was fined $550,000 for the broadcast.

March 18, 2004
Bono reversal: The commissioners determined that the rocker’s salty comment during a live Golden Globe Awards broadcast—“this is really, really fucking brilliant”—was indecent after all. They overruled a 2003 decision by the FCC’s enforcement bureau that said Bono’s remark was not indecent because it was fleeting and did not refer to sex. Instead, the commissioners said the f-word “invariably invokes a coarse sexual image” and that a 1987 decision excusing “isolated or fleeting” utterances was “no longer good law.” Upshot: The f-word is effectively banned from family-friendly broadcast hours, regardless of context or intended meaning, and suddenly even the slightest profane slip-up could be costly.

Feb. 28, 2005
Backpedaling for men at war: The commissioners denied complaints from parent groups about ABC’s uncensored Nov. 11, 2004, primetime broadcast of the World War II movie Saving Private Ryan, in part because editing the film’s profanity would have “diminished the power, realism and immediacy of the film experience for viewers.” Upshot: The FCC appeared to re-emphasize the importance of context in potential indecency cases and suggested dirty words could be acceptable in responsible, artistic works.

March 15, 2006
Another crackdown on trash-talking music people: After okaying Saving Private Ryan’s profanity in the name of preserving realism, the FCC fined small pubTV station KCSM in San Mateo, Calif., for dirty words in a documentary series, The Blues. The $15,000 fine was one of the smallest in a $4 million omnibus order aimed mainly at commercial TV shows. The FCC also decreed that, like the f-word (see Golden Globes, above), “shit” was presumptively indecent because of its “inherently excretory connotation.” Upshot: System leaders and producers, who thought the Private Ryan decision would protect pubTV docs, are again unsure about what is acceptable. In May, PBS ordered producers to pixelate onscreen cursing mouths. KCSM is appealing its fine.

June 15, 2006
President Bush signs bill multiplying the maximum fine to $325,000 per utterance: The commission can levy the max for multiple indecent utterances—though it hasn’t traditionally done this. Upshot: No one can predict what the FCC will or won’t fine, and the stakes just became much, much higher. One bad word could result in a fatal financial blow for a public TV station, though the FCC takes a broadcaster’s ability to pay into consideration in its judgments.

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