Tuesday, March 18, 2008

F**king Expletives!

Can the Federal Communications Commission impose harsh fines on TV networks when on-air presenters make fleeting and isolated use of an expletive? In other words, if the enthusiastic recipient of a Grammy or Golden Globe says an unscripted "fuck yeah!," can the broadcaster be fined?

That's an issue the Supreme Court will take up next year, reports the New York Times. The Supremes will be reviewing a decision by the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (which includes New York), which was skeptical of the FCC's power to levy such fines. A 2-1 decision of that court criticized the FCC for failing to "articulate a reasoned basis" for changing its policy to impose such fines. The court also suggested, but did not decide, that "the F.C.C.’s indecency test is undefined, indiscernible, inconsistent and, consequently, unconstitutionally vague.”

Always worth remembering: the FCC has certain powers to regulate language and content, but in the area of broadcast television only. Cable channels are essentially unregulated. The public airwaves - the broadcast spectrum - are viewed as a limited resource, justifying some limitations on the First Amendment in broadcast television.

That's why "f**k yeah!" may (or may not) be prohibited on broadcast TV, but actual f**king is ok on cable. On broadcast TV, Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" garnered massive fines (also being challenged in the courts), whereas, on cable, shows such as Queer as Folk, The 'L' Word, and Californication (not to mention the Playboy channel) garner ratings, not fines.

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