A federal appeals court ruling striking down the Federal Communications Commission policy barring “fleeting expletives” on radio and television gives the agency good reason to return to the common-sense policies on obscenity that preceded the FCC’s puritanical era of no-tolerance.
Even so, broadcasters shouldn’t regard the recent court decision as their ticket to relax standards of conduct for both live and scripted programming.
With staggering FCC fines of up to $325,000 for dropping a single f-bomb, it’s not really a surprise that a three-judge Court of Appeals panel in New York concluded that the agency’s gotcha policies had “a chilling effect” on broadcasters.
The careless utterances of celebrities at awards ceremonies proved to be a particular worry for broadcasters under the FCC’s crackdown on occasional profanity. The policies put in place under then-FCC chairman Michael K. Powell tripped up the likes of Cher, Paris Hilton and Bono during live broadcasts.
During the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies’ World Series celebration, even a Boy Scout like Chase Utley let fly with an ill-timed vulgarity that went out over the airwaves.
As inappropriate as those profanities were, the appeals judges are correct that the FCC’s rules on such slips of the tongue are overly broad and vague.
Indeed, the agency itself has engaged in selective enforcement — cracking down on a California public television station while overlooking a vulgarity from a reality-show contestant on a CBS program.
The court ruled that the capriciousness of FCC rules supposed to protect the ears and eyes of America from unscripted profanity and “wardrobe malfunctions” left broadcasters without a good yardstick as to which outbursts of distasteful language offended the commission.
For instance, it appears that Utley’s celebratory f-bomb flew under the FCC radar — probably a good thing, since it clearly was out of character.
But clarifying exactly which instances of “fleeting expletives” violate FCC rules wouldn’t represent a step forward.Rather than appeal the court ruling, the FCC needs to quit the business of policing occasional profanity — especially at awards events that typically are broadcast after children’s bedtimes. Such enforcement forays represent a waste of FCC resources.
As in the past, the FCC should focus its efforts to enforce language-decency rules at times children are viewing. And broadcasters can help their own cause by making better use of technology to bleep out offensive bloopers.