Thousands of people — often describing themselves as parents and grandparents — passionately urged the FCC not to change policy and allow “fleeting” or “isolated” instances of nudity and cursing on public airwaves.
More than 101,000 comments were filed just hours before the Wednesday evening deadline to the Federal Communications Commission on its possible policy change for programming airing before 10 p.m.
Just how much impact these comments will have on the agency’s final decision remains unclear.
“It is the voice of the American people,” said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, which tracks indecency in the media. “Is the public-comment period important? Or is the industry’s voice more important? We’ll see.”
The FCC is not compelled to do anything in its decency enforcement. Several of its enforcement decisions were thrown out in a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
In April, the agency asked for comment on a proposal to penalize radio and television broadcast companies for egregious instances of obscenity, but not “isolated” ones. The change presumably would accommodate occasions where people curse during live broadcasts or when there is a “wardrobe malfunction,” as happened to singer Janet Jackson during the 2004 Super Bowl.
“Don’t allow trashier trash to be aired. Please,” wrote a Utah woman.
“Please set a higher [decency] standard. We have compromised far too much already,” said a woman from Fairfax.
Traditional-values groups also weighed in, asking the FCC to keep its current standard and penalize both isolated and egregious instances of obscenity.
Networks have pledged to act in the public interest and they “have a moral duty to the American public to responsibly provide content that is acceptable for all viewers,” said Concerned Women for America.
If obscenity is OK if it’s isolated, “my concern is that … every show in prime time will likely have some incident of profanity or indecency, like nudity. And the networks will be jumping over each other to top each other,” said Patrick Trueman, president and chief executive of Morality in Media. “The language they are proposing is ambiguous and ambivalent.
Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, said the proposed language is too ambiguous and “doesn’t help the situation at all.”
However, industry representatives said current decency rules are confused relics of a bygone era.
The National Association of Broadcasters did refer to the “regulatory vagueness,” but recommended the FCC clearly state that it “will no longer treat fleeting or isolated expletives and images as actionably indecent.”
Others see it as just a waiting game.
“We believe that it is simply a matter of time before the Supreme Court strikes down indecency regulation once and for all,” wrote TechFreedom, Public Knowledge, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Center for Democracy & Technology.
“Broadcasters take seriously their obligations as stewards of the public airwaves,” said the network affiliates’ association for CBS and NBC. Imposing costly fines for fleeting expletives or brief nudity “would unnecessarily chill speech, discourage broadcasters from airing live events and deprive the public of valuable programming.”
At a minimum, the FCC should “exempt news and public-affairs programming from indecency regulation,” said the Radio Television Digital News Association.
If the public is offended by sights and sounds in such programming, there are any number of means for it to “voice its discontent,” such as “hitting the ‘off’ button, turning the dial, or changing the channel,” the association added.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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