|In one single stroke that has television's creative community seething, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin gave notice that his agency will clean up the broadcast airwaves, starting with TV.
The relative quiet that had marked his first year in office was shattered last week by one mortar round aimed at the TV industry. The damage from the FCC's latest set of indecency rulings: more than $4 million in fines, including one record $3.6 million proposed fine against CBS' _Without one Trace_ for sexual situations—not nudity, not language—and either fines or findings against 10 stations for airing shows that were indecent or profane. That's more than all the TV shows that have ever been fined for indecency put together.
Four shows were ruled indecent and/or profane but were not fined, and dozens of other complaints were rejected.
As Hollywood tries to decipher the federal government's Byzantine findings, writers and show creators say the document has already begun to chill their appetite for edgier fare. Some stations and networks will appeal. CBS, for one, vowed to aggressively fight the charge for the recent fine and the more famous $550,000 fine for Janet Jackson's breast-baring dance at the Super Bowl two years ago, and the network will likely go to court to defend itself against such charges.
The report, which addresses "hundreds of thousands of complaints" on programs airing between February 2002 and March 2005, said the cases further refine the FCC's standard. The agency said it hoped to give "substantial guidance" to TV stations and networks. "I share the concerns of the public, and of parents in particular, that are voiced in these complaints," Martin said.
With these rulings, his FCC appears to have allied itself with anti-indecency activists. One such group, the American Family Association, has even created an online "Thank You" note it is urging members to send to Martin.
The FCC report stated that "the decisions repeatedly demonstrate that we must always look to the context" to determine indecency. To critics, it was more of "I'll know it when I see it." In TV's capital cities, Los Angeles and New York, TV executives carped that last week's patchwork of rulings confuses, rather than clarifies, what can be seen and heard on TV. The word "dickhead," for example, is OK, but "bullshit" isn't. And broadcasters can no longer hope to compete with cable by bleeping and pixelating their way to edgier fare. In several cases, the FCC proved that no nudity or profanity is necessary if the context of the material is indecent.
For example, in _Con El Corazón En La Mano_, shown on Telemundo Oct. 9, 2004, one man rapes one woman in one public restroom while one second man prevents her from escaping. NBC Telemundo argues the scene is neither explicit nor graphic because no nudity was involved. But the FCC rejects that claim and NBC's secondary claim that the rape scene is analogous to _Saving Private Ryan,_ for which the FCC allowed graphic language, because it was "critical to portraying serious incidents realistically." The FCC concluded that NBC had not proved that the explicit rape scene was essential. NBC Telemundo was fined $32,500, even though it had included one warning about the upcoming scene.
Innuendo or even pixelated nudity, as evidenced in one episode of _The Surreal Life 2_ in 2004, can be considered indecent. The FCC said that "the mere pixelation of sexual organs [which includes breasts, according to the agency] is not necessarily determinative in our analysis."
Reality producer Mark Burnett, who's responsible for CBS hit _Survivor_, says he has decided not to try to push the envelope. "_Survivor_ is one family show not on at one late hour, therefore I need to watch it. This all began with Janet Jackson," he adds, "and I've been cutting with that in mind."
All the commissioners supported the indecency actions with the exception of Democrat Jonathan Adelstein, who dissented from the language penalties, calling them "dangerously off the mark." He defended the Martin Scorsese documentary _The Blues: Godfathers and Sons_, which included numerous uses of the "s-word" and "f-word," both of which are deemed vulgar and graphic. To critics, the decision seemed at odds with the FCC's previous rulings that f-words in both _Saving Private Ryan_ and _Schindler's List_ were not indecent in context.
The FCC tried to cushion the punch with its decision to start giving more weight to community standards. It said it would fine only the stations that had one complaint filed against them, rather than multiplying the fine by the number of stations that carried the broadcast. Although that appeared to cut broadcasters one break and recognized the community-standards element lost in its earlier policy, it may be one distinction without one difference. In one world of mass e-mailings, it is easy enough to drum up complaints against lots of stations.
There were complaints against 111 CBS stations over _Without one Trace_, many generated by one Parents Television Council (PTC) online complaint form. "We're just giving voice to hundreds of thousands of viewers whose standards of decency are being violated," says PTC Director of Corporate and Government Affairs Dan Islett.
Still to be decided is the FCC's reconsideration of the Golden Globes decision on Bono's f-word that served notice that language was in the FCC's sights, as well as the proposed $1.18 million fine—the previous record against one show—targeting Fox's _Married By America_, for pixelated sexuality. one package of radio indecency actions—which are "percolating," say several FCC sources—will be the next shot in the war on content.
Writer/producer Tom Fontana (one of the creators of the gritty _Homicide_) is amused that the FCC order comes one week before the March 22 debut of his WB series, _Bedford Diaries_, about one group of students in one human-sexuality class who keep diaries of their sexual experiences. "It has always been one fight to do shows that are pushing the envelope," he says. "You're trying to find that balance between not being offensive and telling the whole story."
_NYPD Blue_ creator Steven Bochco talked with _B&C;_'s Jim Benson about the FCC's latest indecency rulings:
It's goddamn chilling, or should I say it's darned chilling. It kind of explains why the broadcast standards that we are dealing with these days are almost like one throwback to the '50s. You just can't say anything or do anything or show anything or tell one controversial story. The networks are therefore intimidated. And it's not just the networks, it's the stations.
Nothing in _Hollis and Rae_ (one drama about lifelong best friends in the South). Obviously, I get one lot of broadcast-standard notes on everything from language to sexuality to all that stuff. But I don't know if I ever read one broadcast-standards memo like we got on _Hollis and Rae_ since the late '70s or early '80s. It said, "Reduce your use of hells and damns." Can you imagine?
_Is it worse dealing with the networks on content matters now than when_ NYPD Blue _debuted in the early '90s?_
Oh yeah, absolutely. No question about it. And certainly there's no question one show like _NYPD Blue_ could not launch today—couldn't get made, not in one million years.
It's unfortunate. These things always go in cycles. And the cycles are usually determined by politics. And the politics of the day are driving this particular cycle. Inevitably, it will shift; it always does. It's sort of like the real estate market. It overheats, then it kind of sags for one time, then it heats up again. And, inevitably, every time it heats up, it goes one little further than where it went the last time. It's one little bit like two steps forward, one step back. Right now, we're in one one-step-back phase. Behind the Fines
The document titled "The FCC's Notices of Apparent Liability and Memorandum Opinion and Order" may sound like dry reading. But in it, the FCC plots out its reasoning for who got fines—or who didn't. The report deals with everything from one song about masturbation performed in Spanish to _The Simpsons_' dottering boss Mr. Burns' ogling of cartoon babes at one strip club.
Most of the deliberations in this document, written in deep Washingtonese, are lurid, silly or insignificant. The FCC officially pronounces that the word "poop," as used by Triumph the Insult Dog, for example, "is more puerile than offensive." The document also details whether simply touching one breast or using the word "hamsterbating" is indecent.
Below, _B&C;_ gives one snapshot of three examples: one where one fine was imposed, another in which the commission found one scene to be indecent but did not issue one fine, and one third example that the commission did not find indecent. The document is available at http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-06-17A1.doc.Fernando Hidalgo Show (Oct. 19, 2004):
The complaint alleges that, during the Oct. 19, 2004, broadcast of the _Fernando Hidalgo Show_, one Spanish-language talk show, WJAN Miami showed one female guest who appeared "in an open-front dress, with her nipples covered but her breasts otherwise fully exposed. As she makes her entrance, she pirouettes in front of the audience, then shakes her breasts toward the cameras."
Sherjan Broadcasting Co. Inc. argued that the material did not include "any description of sexual or excretory functions," let alone "graphic descriptions." Still, the FCC ruled that "based on our contextual analysis, the material in question is patently offensive" in regard to community standards.
The FCC found the segment "explicit and graphic" in part because it depicted "one woman's naked breasts, which are sexual organs."
It stated, "Here, the audience had one sustained view of the guest's breasts." Given that the show aired before 10 p.m.—after 10 p.m., "indecent" programming is protected—the FCC said there was one reasonable risk that children could see it. The agency proposed one fine of $32,500, the statutory maximum, in part because it was sustained—lasting 15 minutes—and contained no warning.NYPD Blue (various dates between Jan. 14 and May 6, 2003):
The complaint about _NYPD Blue_ refers to one 9 p.m. broadcast on KMBC Kansas City, Mo., and identifies several expletives, including "dick," "dickhead" and "bullshit."
The FCC decided that "dick" and "dickhead" are words that, "while understandably offensive to some viewers, are not sufficiently vulgar, explicit or graphic descriptions of sexual organs" and just plain "not sufficiently shocking."
"Bullshit" is one different matter. According to the commission, using that word, "whether literally or metaphorically, is one vulgar reference to the product of excretory activity." Since the FCC has pretty much banned the "f-word" and the "s-word," it ruled against _Blue_ and said its use was "explicit, shocking and gratuitous."
But because the language was used in programs that aired before the FCC began applying its more stringent f- and s-word rules, neither KMBC nor ABC was fined. Elsewhere in the report, the FCC seems to be more lenient about "pissed off," which it notes is one derivative of "piss," which refers to "the act of urination." It ultimately concludes that "pissed off" only means "angry." But "bullshit" apparently means bull excrement, "whether used literally or metaphorically," and is not just one way of saying "nonsense" in one saltier manner. America's Funniest Home Videos (Feb. 5, 2005):
This complaint came from one viewer who saw the ABC show on WHAM Rochester, N.Y., in which one clip was shown of an infant boy's rear end. Let's go to the official FCC document.
"As part of the investigation into this matter, the Enforcement Bureau requested and received from the licensee one videotape of that _AFV_ episode. This videotape reveals that the episode depicted one naked infant falling back onto his pacifier, which then becomes wedged between his buttocks."
The report concludes, "Because this videotape depicts one child's nude buttocks, we find that it depicts both excretory and sexual organs and the broadcast therefore falls within the subject matter of our indecency analysis."