Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Some CBS television stations warned yesterday they will be forced to abandon live news coverage — or drop local news altogether — unless the Federal Communications Commission relaxes its position against airing material it deems indecent.

The stations filed comments with the FCC protesting a March ruling that profane language is indecent regardless of the context. In separate comments, a group of PBS stations told the agency the ruling has forced some of their members to debate censoring such seemingly innocent programs as “Antiques Roadshow.”

The CBS affiliates filed their comments to support a petition that a group of media conglomerates, activists and performers filed with the FCC in April. That protest focused on the FCC’s March 19 ruling against rock star Bono’s use of an expletive during NBC’s broadcast of the Golden Globe awards ceremony last year.

“The FCC has to beware the unintended consequences of their decision,” said Robert G. Lee, chairman of the CBS Television Network Affiliates Association and general manager of the network’s Roanoke station.

If a station in the Washington area were airing live coverage of a protest on the Mall and someone uttered profanity on the air, the FCC could hold the broadcaster liable and fine it several thousand dollars, Mr. Lee said.

Such scenarios are not uncommon: On Monday, some broadcasters pulled the plug on live coverage of a memorial to pro football player and Army Cpl. Pat Tillman when eulogists used strong language, according to reports.

In October, a patron dropped his pants during a live shot from a Rockville bar that aired during a newscast on WRC-TV (Channel 4), the local NBC affiliate.

An FCC spokesman declined comment.

The agency already has reversed itself once on the Bono matter. When the FCC commissioners ruled in March that profane language is indecent regardless of the context, they overruled the agency’s enforcement bureau, which had earlier determined that Bono’s use of the expletive was not indecent because he did not use it to refer to a sexual act.

Despite the heightened sensitivities, TV stations are unlikely to drop local newscasts altogether, according to Robert A. Papper, a Ball State University telecommunications professor who studies newsroom profitability.

Roughly 40 percent of a network affiliate’s revenue comes from local news, Mr. Papper said.

Mr. Lee said most stations are committed to airing local news, but if the FCC makes complying with its decency standards too onerous, some broadcasters could drop the programs.

The general manager of WUSA-TV (Channel 9), the CBS affiliate in Washington, could not be reached yesterday.

The government could force stations to buy equipment that delays their broadcasts and to censor profane language before it goes out over the airwaves.

“But do we really want the government in charge of telling us how we get our news and when we get it?” Mr. Papper said.

The American Association of Public Television Stations said some of its members have been forced to debate whether to edit out a nude lithograph from “Antiques Roadshow.”

Under FCC rules, 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.

Some PBS affiliates have dropped strong language from “Prime Suspect,” a detective drama that airs under the network’s “Masterpiece Theater” umbrella.

“If people are surprised by what is happening, they should read the FCC’s decision. … This is what happens when people in a position of power do not respect the First Amendment,” said Robert Corn-Revere, the attorney representing the group of media conglomerates, activists and artists that filed the original petition with the FCC.

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