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Saturday, March 20, 2004

FCC changes rules

FCC changes rules

Thursday, the FCC changed their rules on indecency and tightened them up with little guidence or warning.

In a series of broad decisions yesterday involving the issue of indecency over the airwaves, the Federal Communications Commission put broadcasters on notice that it would have little tolerance for further, even accidental, transgressions and would be much more determined to impose fines.

The F.C.C. gave a $27,500 fine to an Infinity Broadcasting station in Detroit that carries the talk show host Howard Stern. It also fined a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications $55, 000 over an incident that occurred five years ago on one of its radio stations.

And in the decision on the case that has received most recent attention, the commission reversed a ruling that had absolved NBC regarding the use of a vulgarity by the singer Bono in a live telecast of the Golden Globe Awards a year ago. Originally the commission said his use of the word was not a violation because it was a "fleeting" use, and not used in a sexual context.

Yesterday the five-member commission unanimously declared that, fleeting or not, and in whatever context, the word was a vulgarity and as a result a violation. NBC was not fined, however, because three of the F.C.C. commissioners, including the chairman, Michael K. Powell, ruled that NBC had not been put on notice that such an incident would merit a fine.

This position was opposed by two commissioners, most vociferously by Michael J. Copps, who argued that the commission never needed to give notice. "This may not be a case where a revocation of license is in order," Mr. Copps wrote in a statement. "But neither is it a case that warrants no penalty at all. I believe the commission would be fully within its rights to impose a fine for this particular instance of profanity and indecency. We send entirely the wrong signal by failing to do so."

OK, so will ABC be fined for showing the unedited Saving Private Ryan? Will NBC be fined for Schindler's List? Howard Stern or any radio jock is not really the issue, because they know they can't say fuck on the air, and it's a common sense rule. It's the exceptions where a movie like Saving Private Ryan come up. Editing for language makes the film unwatchable and it-well at least the first and last half hour-should be watched by wide audiences.

The FCC has changed the rules in such a way that gives no leeway to broadcasters. Any utterance of the word fuck could result in a fine, even during a live sporting event. Here is a pretty good analysis of the FCC's legal decision.

What is amazing is that broadcasters still try to negotiate with the FCC. This ruling, which has plenty of legal questions, limits their ability to make money. Most Americans pay for their TV for a reason. The Sopranos hovers like a ghost over TV and most Americans have never seen it. Any show which approaches it' like FX's The Shield can never air on broadcast TV. The FCC represents a vocal minority and broadcasters seem unable to understand the threat the FCC poses to their profits.

If Howard Stern is driven from the radio, the medium will not last five years. Why? Sattelite and internet radio is free from FCC interference. You can play Metallica and hip-hop without edits. Why not listen to an unedited Stern via your laptop, desktop or a tuner? For $100 a year, what you spend on hamburgers, you can have adult radio which is free from FCC control.

It may turn out that the most important court ruling of the last decade was the one which places the Internet under the First Amendment. It may allow broadcasters a medium where they can show what they want to an audience while the government spins their heels. Which is as it should be.

posted by Steve @ 10:34:00 AM

10:34:00 AM

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