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Nudity, profanity and broadcast TV: The future hangs in the balance right now

The FCC wants to relax the way decency standards are enforced with regards to broadcast TV. However, groups like the Parents Television Council and American Family Association are urging citizens to file comments against the proposed changes.
The FCC wants to relax the way decency standards are enforced with regards to broadcast TV. However, groups like the Parents Television Council and American Family Association are urging citizens to file comments against the proposed changes.

Though the media seems not to have noticed, the Federal Communications Commission informed the American people on April 1 that it would like to ease up on enforcing existing decency standards for broadcast television and radio by only punishing the “deliberate and repetitive use” of profanity and nudity.

Advocacy groups like the Parents Television Council and American Family Association immediately and strongly denounced the FCC’s proposal, pointing out that such an enforcement mechanism would allow even the most offensive words in the English language to be uttered on broadcast TV without repercussion. Now, less than two weeks removed from the FCC’s announcement, more than 50,000 Americans have already filed comments with the commission about the proposed changes to decency enforcement on the public airwaves.

It remains unclear who will ultimately decide what the FCC policy should be and when that decision will be made. Be that as it may, the future of broadcast television may well be hanging in the balance right now.

Stakes run high

Parents Television Council Director of Public Policy Dan Isett projects no ambivalence in assessing the consequences of the FCC’s preferred course of action.

“What the FCC is talking about doing is to allow broadcast television to become essentially like the types of content that you see on cable and premium cable,” Isett said. “That is to say, there would be no safe harbor for families — even on the airwaves that they own.”

Bryan Fischer, the conservative radio host and director of issues analysis for the American Family Association, employed blunt imagery in forecasting an ostensibly bleak future for broadcast TV.

“I think for the average family in America, if somebody was routinely coming into their living room and dumping garbage on the floor, they would want it to stop,” Fischer said. “And if the FCC relaxes this rule, it will simply give permission to the networks to dump even more trash into American living rooms.”

Per federal policy, the commission’s public notice of April 1 opened a 30-day period for public comment. Both the Parents Television Council and American Family Association urged concerned citizens to file an official comment with the FCC. By last Thursday afternoon the number of comments stood at 56,074, a figure that will surely grow when the FCC updates the tally in the days ahead.

“The last time I looked,” Isett said, “there were more than 56,000 public comments already filed, and I have yet to find one that says, ‘Please give us more indecency.’ There may be one in there somewhere, but I haven’t seen it.”

Despite the unequivocal language of Isett and Fischer, and the concern voiced by tens of thousands of Americans, the mainstream media has remained silent about the FCC’s desire to relax the way decency standards are enforced. In fact, the closest thing to “mainstream media coverage” to show up on the Internet regarding these developments is a brief mention in a technology blog post on the Politico website.

“As of yesterday afternoon, the commission’s Electronic Comment Filing System contained 56,074 comments on the issue,” Alex Byers wrote Friday for Politico. “Most of them come from regular citizens like Darla Hulse of Pocatello, Idaho, who told the commission: ‘People who want that filth can find it on their own. You don't have to cater to them. Let the rest of us have a vote on keeping decency! Please.’”

Genesis of a controversy

On April 1 the FCC published the aforementioned public notice that has elicited the ire of the Parents Television Council and American Family Association. At the heart of the public notice is a directive from FCC chairman Julius Genachowski that the commission’s Enforcement Bureau has actually been following since September: Focus only on “egregious” cases of indecency in broadcast media, and ignore “isolated” expletives and nudity.

Specifically, the notice stated, “We now seek comment on whether the full commission should make changes to its current broadcast indecency policies or maintain them as they are. For example, should the commission treat isolated expletives in a manner consistent with our (prior) decision. … ‘If a complaint focuses solely on the use of expletives, we believe that … deliberate and repetitive use in a patently offensive manner is a requisite to a finding of indecency.’”

According to the public notice, Genachowski’s mandate has played a prominent role in the FCC being able to reduce its backlog of pending indecency complaints by 70 percent over the last seven months — more than 1 million complaints in all, summarily dismissed for lacking “egregious” repetition or simply being “too stale.”

In essence, the public notice is the commission’s way of signaling its desire to make that temporary directive into permanent policy. (“Today’s Public Notice does not alter any of the commission’s current substantive indecency policies. … The aforementioned directive to the bureau to focus its indecency enforcement resources on egregious cases remains in force.”)

“That’s the really ironic thing — they break their own arms patting themselves on the back for not doing anything,” Isett said. “What’s particularly offensive frankly is that a lot of these were thrown out on the basis of ‘staleness.’ These are things that were filed three, four, five years ago and were never adjudicated one way or the other. So now, what the FCC is saying is using the fact that they haven’t done anything on this issue to continue not doing anything.”

Genachowski announced March 22 he would resign as FCC chairman “in the near future.” As a result, the person whose enforcement directive is being hotly debated will in all likelihood not be around to make the final decision as to whether that directive becomes permanent policy.

When contacted for comment Friday, FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield directed concerned citizens to refer to the commission’s public notice. He declined to speculate when the matter of indecency enforcement will be administratively adjudicated, but did confirm that FCC employees will read every comment filed with the commission during the ongoing 30-day comment period.

“The FCC will read and analyze the comments, and any future policy will be decided upon by a vote of the full commission,” Wigfield said.

Speaking up

Interested parties can file a comment about indecency enforcement through the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System until April 30. Websites such as the Deseret News and American Family Association provide detailed instructions for filing these comments. Via Google, a search for “FCC ECFS” will guide you to the ECFS homepage — at which point you’ll want to click on “Submit a Filing (Express),” and then select proceeding number 13-86.

“The free speech plank of the First Amendment was not designed by the founders to protect profanity, vulgarity, obscenity or anything of the sort,” Fischer said. “So there is no constitutional right for networks to dump garbage in people’s living rooms.

“And the reality is that we have an FCC because the airwaves belong to the people of the United States, and therefore the wishes and the desires of the people, they have a right to have their values respected in the way that their airwaves are used. That’s why we need to weigh in.”

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at or 801-236-6051.