- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Federal Communications Commission denied 36 indecency complaints yesterday, a move that is expected to further confuse broadcasters about what is permitted on the public airwaves.

All 36 complaints were generated by the Parents Television Council, the conservative watchdog group that has criticized the FCC’s yearlong crackdown on indecency, saying it has not been tough enough on broadcasters.

The complaints stem from episodes of TV programs that aired between Oct. 29, 2001, and Feb. 11, 2004. Several of the episodes cited were from shows such as “NYPD Blue,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “Boston Public” in which characters use a term that can be interpreted as another word for “jerk.”

Other complaints focused on episodes of “Friends,” “Will & Grace,” “Scrubs” and other programs that featured characters discussing sexual matters.

“The commission concluded that, in context, none of the segments were patently offensive under contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, and thus not indecent. The commission also found that the material was not profane, in context,” according to a statement issued from the agency.

Lara Mahaney, a Parents Television Council spokeswoman, said it is “outrageous that the FCC has deemed it appropriate for children to hear words at 8 o’clock or 7 o’clock at night that most newspapers aren’t going to print when they write this story.”

Many of the shows cited were broadcast by the networks between 9 and 11 p.m., but at earlier times in syndication.

FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, who announced plans last week to resign from his position in March, and commissioners Kathleen Q. Abernathy and Jonathan S. Adelstein endorsed the proposal to deny the complaints.

Another commissioner on the five-person panel, Kevin J. Martin, disagreed with the decision.

The fifth commissioner, Michael J. Copps, said he generally disagreed with the decision, too.

“Some broadcasters contend the commission has not been adequately clear about how it determines whether a broadcast is indecent. Today’s rather cursory decisions do little to address any of these concerns,” Mr. Copps said.

Ms. Mahaney said the decision is another example of Mr. Powell’s “poor leadership.” Her group has endorsed Mr. Martin to succeed Mr. Powell as chairman.

The ruling probably will confuse broadcasters who have complained that the FCC’s enforcement of the federal government’s decency standards have been uneven, some First Amendment lawyers said.

Federal regulations state that broadcasters cannot air material containing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to tune in. The rules apply only to over-the-air radio and television stations.

“Until this, I have not been one of those people saying that the enforcement has been confusing. Now that I’m reading this [the 36 complaints that were denied], I kind of agree with those people,” said Howard M. Liberman, a communications lawyer and former staff lawyer for the FCC.

Mr. Liberman said some of the complaints denied by the FCC are coarser than Janet Jackson’s performance during last year’s Super Bowl halftime show, which sparked a national debate over indecency after singer Justin Timberlake briefly exposed one of her breasts.

One of the complaints cites a March 2003 episode of the canceled sitcom “AUSA” that aired at 9:30 p.m. on NBC. According to the transcript provided by the FCC, a character frets because he fell asleep in a hotel room while watching a pornographic movie.

Another complaint cited a December 2003 episode of NBC’s medical comedy “Scrubs” in which a male doctor ribs a female doctor because she aroused a patient during a pelvic exam.

Mr. Liberman and other lawyers said the decision could signal that the FCC is easing up on indecency complaints.

An FCC official who did not want to be named said it is not unusual for the agency to dismiss complaints, although it usually does not issue so many dismissals at once. The FCC bundled yesterday’s complaints because it is cleaning out a backlog of complaints, the official said.

The FCC received a record 1.1 million indecency-related complaints last year, up from 111 in 2000, the year before Mr. Powell became chairman. The agency issued $7.9 million in fines in 2004, up from $48,000 for similar penalties four years earlier.

Many of the complaints stemmed from the Parents Television Council, which provides visitors to its Web site with a link that allows them to file a complaint with the FCC electronically.

Last year, when the FCC fined Fox $1.2 million — the largest indecency fine to date — for the canceled reality series “Married by America,” the agency’s ruling stated that it had received 159 complaints about the program.

But an investigation by Internet blogger Jeff Jarvis, formerly a TV Guide critic, found that the FCC had received 90 complaints about that show written by 23 persons. All but two of those 23 persons used identical form letters issued by the Parents Television Council, meaning the actual number of distinct complaints about “Married by America” was three.

Last week, Fox entertainment chief Gail Berman urged the FCC to provide broadcasters with “clarity.”

During a meeting with TV critics in Los Angeles, she said her network blurred an image of a cartoon baby’s behind on a recent repeat of “Family Guy,” even though the scene aired unaltered and without complaint four years ago.

“We are doing our best to find our way in this very complicated issue in a very complicated landscape,” she said.

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