Sunday, January 27, 2008

The FCC and "Indecency"

For those of you who have not heard yet, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced Friday that it intends to fine the American Broadcast Company (ABC) $1.4 million for the 2003 episode of NYPD Blue, "Nude Awakening," which aired all the way back on February 25, 2003. The episode in question featured a full view of a woman's bare posterior and upper legs. The FCC alleges that the episode is indecent because " depicts sexual organs and excretory organs — specifically an adult woman's buttocks." The FCC claims that it received several complaints about the scene. The $1.4 million fine is one of the largest in television history.

As to ABC, they are contesting the fine and plan to appeal. They point out that NYPD Blue aired with "appropriate parental warnings" and "V-chip enabled program ratings from the time such ratings were implemented." ABC has also argued that the human posterior is not a sexual organ (here it must be noted that the pubic region was never visible).

If the FCC's intention to fine ABC for that particular episode of NYPD Blue has received a lot of press coverage, it is perhaps because for most of television's history such fines for indecency have been exceedingly rare. In fact, many might be surprised by what has aired on television in the past with not even an eyebrow being raised by the FCC. In fact, it was all the way back in 1974 that full female nudity first appeared on television on, of all places, PBS. It was in a broadcast of the play Steambath that actress Valerie Perrine appeared fully naked. In 1976 the NBC miniseries Captains and the Kings featured the first exposed nipple on network broadcast television. It was in 1981 on Saturday Night Live that actor Charles Rocket let slip the F-bomb. Rocket was fired, but the FCC did not fine NBC.

That is not to say that FCC fines for indecency were totally unknown to television prior to the Naughts. In 1987 the FCC levelled a fine at Kansas City station KZKC-TV for a discussion on a talk show of the R-rated movie Private Lessons. The fine was eventually cancelled. In 1997 the FCC fined WJPR-TV in Lynchburg, Virginia for airing a movie in 1993 which included "non- literal uses of the 'F-Word' and the 'S-Word.'" The fine was eventually rescinded. Telemundo would not prove so lucky in 2001. The Spanish language network had aired a show which included a scene of a couple taking a bath together, among other things. Telemundo would become the first television outlet in the United States who was forced to pay a fine for indecency, in their case one of $21,000. In a skit airing in 2002, KRON-TV in San Francisco would violate FCC rules in a way that makes Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" look mild--a young man exposed himself briefly. The FCC fined KRON $27,000 for the incident, making them the first television outlet in the continental United States who had to pay a fine for indecency. In 2003 Fox would become the first network to be fined for a reality series. The series Married by America featured digitally obscured nudity, for which the FCC fined the network a then record $1,183,000. A 2003 unedited broadcast of the movie The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper on St. Louis station KTVI, in which the S-word is uttered several times, resulted in a $27,500 fine for the station.

As to why fines for indecency were relatively rare until the Naughts, this perhaps has to do with the fact that for most of its history, the television industry has been rather conservative with regards to content. As late as 1966 it was forbidden to say the word "Hell" on television and the networks were nervous about showing as much as a woman's belly button. As time passed the networks would loosen their restrictions. It was in 1971 that audiences first heard a toilet flush, on the sitcom All in the Family. This process of the networks easing their restrictions on programme content would accelerate once the television ratings system went into effect in 1997 While for much of their history the television networks were very cautious about the content of their programmes, the Federal Communications Commission has been nervous about engaging in anything that might be construed as censorship. It is perhaps for this reason that incidents such as Charles Rocket uttering the F-bomb were overlooked.

All of this would change on February 1, 2004, when during the Super Bowl half time show Janet Jackson briefly exposed a breast. Swiftly becoming a cause celebre, the FCC fined CBS $550,000. Following the incident the United States Congress increased the FCC's fines for indecency, settling upon the amount of $325,000 for each violation. The FCC also started paying much closer attention to the broadcast networks with regards to "indecency," so that fines for indecency were levelled much more often. A February 2004 episode of the WB reality show The Surreal Life would result in a $27,500 fine for the now defunct WB over digitally obscured nudity. In 2006 the FCC levelled a record $3.6 million fine against CBS for an December 2004 episode of Without a Trace which suggested a teenage orgy (there was no nudity whatsoever in the scene).

I must admit that in some respects I can see the need for the FCC's rules on indecency and the fines that go with them. I think most of us can agree that the incident in which a young man exposed himself on KRON in 2002 was quite deserving of an indecency fine, as I suspect a vast majority of Americans would have found that objectionable (in fact, I dare say that the fine should have been greater). And I think most of us can understand why the FCC decided to level a fine when U2 front man Bono dropped the F-bomb on an NBC broadcast of the Golden Globes. That having been said, I think there are times when the FCC seems very inconsistent in their approach to what is indecent and what is not.

To wit, the FCC fined KTVI for airing The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper with the S-word unedited, yet they let ABC air the movie Saving Private Ryan complete with its swearing intact. The FCC determined that "deleting offensive words would have altered the nature of the artistic work and diminished the power, realism and immediacy of the film experience for viewers." I may be wrong, but it seems to me as if the FCC is saying that it is all right for soldiers to swear but not for skyjackers or anyone else. The FCC's lack of consistency is even more glaring with regards to NYPD Blue. The series had featured nudity from the very beginning, so that over the years on the show we have seen the bare bottoms of David Caruso, Jimmy Smits, Gail O'Grady, and even Dennis Franz. Now granted I am a guy, but I personally find Dennis Franz's posterior more offensive than that of any of the women on NYPD Blue...

While I admit I can see a need for the FCC's indecency rules, I think that they should be administered with a bit of consistency and common sense. If the FCC is going to fine ABC for one instance of nudity on NYPD Blue, then perhaps they should fine them for every instance of nudity on NYPD Blue for the past fifteen years. If they are going to fine KTVI for airing The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper with its swearing uncut, then they should fine ABC for airing Saving Private Ryan with it swearing uncut. I don't understand why it is acceptable for soldiers to curse, but not skyjackers... Finally, when a series airs with the appropriate rating (allowing for a TV set's V-chip to block it if necessary) and the appropriate parental warnings (which NYPD Blue always has), I see no reason to level fines of indecency for anything less than exposure of the pubic region or explicit sex. I can understand the FCC levelling the fine over Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl half time show, because in theory children could have been watching and parents would have had no warning that their children might be exposed to something they might not want them to see. That having been said, unless someone has been on a deserted island for the past 15 years, I do not see how they could not realise that NYPD Blue often contains material that many might find objectionable. Quite frankly, if the proper ratings and proper parental warnings are in place, then it is a parent's own fault if he or she allows his or her child to watch NYPD Blue with all its swearing and nudity. I can understand the need for the FCC's indecency regulations, but of late it seems to me that they have not been applied properly.

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