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The U.S. Supreme Court finally began considering whether the Federal Communications Commission’s, or FCC, has the right to police the U.S. airwaves for dirty words and images, or if this violates broadcasters’ right to free speech.
The court began deliberations on Jan. 10, but probably won’t make a decision until June. Whatever their decision is, it could affect the broadcast-television industry, which is currently losing more and more viewers to cable and Internet video.
If the court decides to side with broadcasters, it may free them from the threat of multimillion-dollar indecency fines and also lead networks to experiment with racier content or language that is often found on their cable rivals, like AMC and FX.
The cases before the Supreme court involve ABC and Fox.
ABC received a $1.4 million fine after the bare bottom of actress Charlotte Ross was shown in a 2003 episode of “NYPD Blue.” They argues though that the episode couldn’t be deemed indecent as Ross’s bottom was not a “sexual organ,” and thus no frontal nudity was shown.
The FCC only warned Fox about a December 2002 incident where Cher used an expletive during the Billboard Music Awards. Another case included reality-show personality Nicole Richie. Fox argues that they didn’t break any indecency rules because they didn’t know the celebrities were going to swear and hadn’t intentionally aired them.
Prior to 2003, the FCC had given broadcasters a pass for airing live, unscripted profanities. This changed though when U2 singer Bono had blurted out the F-word during the Golden Globes. The FCC then became under pressure from watchdog groups who said that broadcasters should be fined for airing all profanities, regardless of whether it’s during live television or not.
A former Supreme Court precedent allows the FCC to regulate broadcast indecency between 6 am and 10 pm, which is when children are more likely to be watching television. Broadcasters can be fined up to $325,000 for each profanity or indecent image shown.
Broadcasters are confused though by the FCC, as they say enforcement is so inconsistent that they aren’t aware of what is allowed and not. In 2005, ABC was allowed to air an unedited version of “Saving Private Ryan,” despite the profanities because the FCC said it was providing a historical view of the war. However, a year later, PBS was fined for airing a documentary called “The Blues” because it contained profanities. In that case, the FCC said the profanities weren’t necessary to “express any particular viewpoint.”
If broadcasters lose though, they may still be getting a break as current FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, a Democrat, isn’t very interested in handing out indecency fines. This is different from his Republican predecessor, Kevin Martin, who made patrolling the airwaves a big priority.