Tuesday, April 18, 2006
FCC Follies, part 1
Since I’m something of a First Amendment junkie, once the specter of the FCC entered my head, it became the pink elephant I couldn’t ignore. Up until the infamous idiocy now known as “Nipplegate”, the FCC was only heard from occasionally, handing out small fines here and there and rarely making the front page. On that 2004 Super Bowl Sunday, however, when Janet Jackson accidentally-on-purpose flashed her pastie covered bosom to the country, the FCC suddenly became the new sheriff in town. They vowed to crack down on obscenity. They toughened fining policies. In the old days, it was the networks that were fined for programming they created. In the grand new days, however, the FCC applies fines not just to the network itself, but to every affiliate that showed the program.
Much of this is old news, but it is worth revisiting. Pre-Nipplegate, the FCC got some attention for its decision not to fine FOX for the 2004 Billboard Music Awards when Irish rock star Bono responded to his band’s award as being “fuckin brilliant”. In what seemed like a shockingly sensible decision, the FCC ruled that context is all. In this instance, Bono was using the word “Fuckin” as an expression of enthusiasm, as opposed to an expression proposing fornication. Therefore, FOX would not be fined.
Post-Nipplegate, in the ensuing hysteria, the FCC decided to reverse this decision which one can only assume they feared reflected some moral laxity on their part. FOX was fined, along with CBS’s The Early Show, for broadcasting the “Fuckin” unknown around the world until all this fuss drew attention to it. Their justification was that, upon further review, they decided that there was no way to remove the word “fucking” from its sexual context. It is always sexual and therefore it is always obscene.
While the networks protested, local network affiliates flat out panicked. A 3.5 million dollar fine to a network may be aggravating but a 30 second advertisement during the Super Bowl brought CBS 2 million. For a small local affiliate however, a $27,000 fine could be devastating, in addition to the fact that any FCC citations can be used against it when their license is up for renewal. The first casualty of the now cowed affiliates was ABC’s Veteran’s Day showing of Saving Private Ryan.
When ABC bought the rights to show Saving Private Ryan from Steven Spielberg, as he had earlier with Schindler’s List, he required that the film be shown unedited in its entirety. Affiliates begged the FCC to clear airing the movie, but the FCC responded with the feeble admonition that stations needed to “use their own good-faith judgment”.
Even if the FCC had given permission, its past behavior provided no assurance that it wouldn’t later turn around and fine them anyway. ABC affiliates all over the country preempted the movie. Although conservative pundits screamed that it was some kind of liberal plot, among the affiliates opting not to show the film were Atlanta, Dallas, Orlando and Phoenix, red state affiliates all. Although some would call this ironic, I believe the expression “chickens coming home to roost” is a bit more appropriate. It seems to me the station directors making these calls were showing an hard earned understanding of their audience.
Before we go any further, a brief analysis of Saving Private Ryan may be in order. It is a rated R film, which when shown on television is no doubt prefaced with a TV-Mature (only appropriate for 17 and older) rating. It is obviously violent and it is simply swimming in profanity. The Screen It website which offers reviews for parents offers the following breakdown, which they warn should be considered a minimum, since the sound of fighting often obscures dialog: “At least 20 "f" words, 12 "s" words, 3 slang terms using male genitals ("pr*ck" and "c*cksucker"), 17 hells, 10 S.O.B.'s, 8 asses (2 used with "hole"), 4 damns, 1 crap, and 12 uses of "G-damn," 3 of "Jesus," and 2 each of "Oh my God" and "Jesus Christ" as exclamations.” Screen It also helpfully adds: “Around ten or so uses of "FUBAR" (F*cked Up Beyond All Recognition) also occur during the movie.”
Faced with 20 F words and an out to lunch FCC, it’s no wonder station managers blanched. Ray Cole, the president of a communications company that owns affiliates in Sioux City and Lincoln, Neb said: "Without an advance waiver from the FCC . . . we're not going to present the movie in prime time. Under strict interpretation of the indecency rules we do not see any way possible to air this movie. To be put in this position is unfortunate, and reflects the timidity that exists at the commission right now."
Just to obfuscate things even further, in response to the Saving Private Ryan hullabaloo, the FCC came out AGAIN and said AGAIN that “sometimes” it’s ok to use the F-word if it’s for dramatic effect. In case you’re keeping score, we have Bono not allowed to use the word “fuck” for dramatic affect; Tom Hanks, allowed to use the word “fuck” for dramatic effect. And, if you’re lucky enough to be a television network, the FCC will not tell you before you air something whether it offends their standards, because, they offer with a straight face, that would be censorship. They will only let you know afterwards.
The latest round of citations and fines in March was in part an attempt by the FCC to clear the decks. Although they were cited for ‘indecent broadcasts’, FOX was, finally, not fined for the 2004 Billboard Music Awards, nor CBS for The Early Show because the FCC magnanimously allowed that the broadcasts had taken place before the change in the indecency rules. The FCC rejected CBS’s appeal of the 2004 Super Bowl ruling, however. Janet Jackson’s boob is still obscene.
In addition, CBS was slapped with a 3.6 million dollar fine for an episode of Without A Trace. The episode depicted a teenage orgy. I don’t watch Without A Trace, which I find pretty dull, actually. Obviously I wasn’t watching on the right evening! Joel Stein has some interesting things to say about the episode. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the episode was, in fact, a re-run. It had already been broadcast, but CBS showed it again at a different, earlier time. It is this re-broadcast that has resulted in the fines.
In addition to the big fines (3.6 million for CBS, 1.6 million for the WB), some smaller fines were levied against some networks and individual affiliates. (The complete list) Amidst the teen orgies, reality TV faux pas and movies showing inadequately disguised sex, one fine jumps out: A $15,000 fine to PBS affiliate KCSM for airing “The Blues: Godfathers and Sons”, one of seven episodes which make up Martin Scorsese’s project of the heart The Blues. The program was aired from 8 to 10, and contained several uses of the words Fuck and Shit. According to the FCC, these two words are “likely to shock the viewer and disturb the peace and quiet of the home. The gratuitous and repeated use of this language in a program that San Mateo aired at a time when children were expected to be in the audience is shocking,”
It’s easy to lose the thread while reading about dramas featuring sexually active teens and reality programs featuring pixilated sex. You find yourself thinking, well, yeah the FCC is full of it but Married by America sounds like a really lousy show. Maybe, even though the FCC is full of it, maybe possibly they were kind of asking for it. But an FCC fine for a documentary about blues music? And not just a fine, but a mealy mouthed admonition against “disturbing the peace and quiet of the home”. As if the TV suddenly came to life, possessed by PBS, and began chasing small children around the house barraging them with Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s now Tom Hanks: OK to use the word Fuck for dramatic effect. Bono: Not ok to use the word Fuck for dramatic effect. Martin Scorsese and the godfathers of Blues music in America: Not ok to use the word Fuck for dramatic effect. But wait, it’s not even that simple. This is just whether or not it’s OK to use the word Fuck before 10 pm. After 10 pm, the words fuck and shit, teen orgies, pixilated sex and documentaries about blues music are all just fine. Before 10, they are obscene. After 10, they magically transform into “not obscene”. Of course, it should be pointed out that the only place in America that The Blues: Godfathers and Sons is officially obscene before or after 10, according to the FCC, is in San Matteo California.
When we deal with complaints at the Library, one of the things we point out to people is that everyone has things they like that others might find offensive. If we began removing things based on every complaint, soon our shelves would be empty. It seems like the perfect world according to the FCC would be 300 channels of empty shelves.
Coming Soon: Part 2, in which I dissect TV Ratings and how the FCC has become a mouthpiece for The Parents Television Council.