The future of long-standing government bans on obscenity and nudity on the airwaves soon could become much clearer as President Obama's pick to head the Federal Communications Commission faces a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday — one day before the public comment period on the policy ends.
Groups battling indecent content on television are urging members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to press FCC nominee Tom Wheeler about his views on decency standards.
They also are calling for supporters to denounce an FCC proposal to pursue only "egregious" decency violations, saying that change would open the floodgates for partial nudity and rampant profanity during prime time.
"If you think TV is bad now, just wait until the FCC all but sanctions nudity and profanity, permitting both as long as they are 'isolated,' whatever that means," Patrick A. Trueman, president and chief executive of Morality in Media, said in a recent email to supporters.
A spokesman for the broadcasting industry said Monday that because of FCC "overreach," networks are legitimately worried that they will be sued for rare occasions in which a "fleeting expletive" or split second of nudity is aired.
It's come to a point when networks can't show a live eulogy about a fallen war hero for fear that someone will drop the "F-bomb" and expose the networks to huge fines, said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), referring to an incident in Arizona.
The nation's decency laws are likely to be discussed at the Senate hearing.
Current federal decency law forbids explicit profanity and nudity before 10 p.m. on public airwaves. However, FCC efforts to enforce the law have been challenged in court, and a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling threw out penalties against networks because the FCC failed to give them "fair notice" about what was an actionable federal offense.
The FCC has since asked for comment on a policy that essentially would permit "isolated" profanity and nonsexual nudity to appear before 10 p.m. without fear of penalty. This presumably would mean that broadcasters would not be held responsible for curse words spoken on a live awards show or the kind of "wardrobe malfunction" that exposed Janet Jackson's breast at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.
The comment period on the FCC policy change ends Wednesday. As of Monday evening, 99,096 comments had been filed. The vast majority were along the lines of Utah resident Randy Hughes' comment: "We don't need any more garbage on TV! There is enough garbage out there for those who want it. Those of us who don't shouldn't be forced to have to deal with it. You are making it impossible to watch any kind of TV without having to deal with filth!"
The NAB will file its comments Wednesday, Mr. Wharton said.
The NAB has signaled its support for Mr. Wheeler, saying it looks forward to working with a man with such "experience and temperament."
Mr. Wheeler's position on the decency issue is not known, and the Senate should not confirm him "until it receives assurances that he'll vigorously enforce the federal decency law, which prohibits indecency and profanity on broadcast TV," Mr. Trueman said Monday.
The previous FCC chairman "executed no enforcement actions during his tenure," Mr. Trueman and leaders of dozens of other groups that support moral values, said in a letter to Congress in May.
"So we want [Mr. Wheeler] grilled on whether he will enforce the law and side with the American public, or continue [the previous FCC chairman's] path and please the networks," said Mr. Trueman, a former federal prosecutor of sex and obscenity crimes.
The Parents Television Council this month issued an analysis showing a rising number of "pixilated" groins, female breasts and other indecent images on network programming.
Almost 70 percent of this kind of "blurred" nudity is being shown on network programs that are rated for children 14 and younger, said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council.
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