FCC Removes Soap From Select Mouths

Coincidentally or otherwise, the FCC on Election Day eve decided it's OK to utter the S-word on the news.

The commission this week released an order reversing an earlier indecency ruling against two shows. One involved a segment on the CBS "Early Show," in which a game show contestant was referred to as a "B.S-er." The other was for episodes of the now defunct ABC crime drama, "NYPD Blue," featuring several uses of a four-letter vulgarity for male genitalia.

F-word users received no such reprieves. The FCC held to its original finding that F-bombs from Cher and Nicole Richie on the 2002 and 2003 "Billboard Music Awards" were indeed indecent and profane.

No fines were levied in any of the four cases because all occurred before the FCC decided to go after Bono for saying "effin' brilliant" on the Golden Globe Awards in early 2002.

The FCC issued an omnibus order in March that confirmed and levied a total of $4.5 million in indecency fines. Broadcasters, including Fox TV stations and CBS, sued the following month, saying the FCC didn't give them a chance to respond to the findings. The FCC reconsidered, and in July, asked the court if it could take another crack at the ruling. The motion was granted Sept. 7., opening up a 60-day comment period.

In its reversal, the commission said it found the "Early Show" S-word neither indecent nor profane... "due to the fact that it occurred during news programming." "NYPD Blue" got off the hook because the complaints against stations airing the episodes came from other markets.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin responded to the order with a poke at the content community. "Hollywood continues to argue they should be able to say the F-word on television whenever they want," he wrote. "Today, the commission again disagrees."

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who dissented in part in round one, did so again on the revised order. Adelstein took issue with using the Golden Globe incident as a standard, when the ruling has been pending reconsideration for more than two years. He also questioned the determination of the "Early Show" segment as a bona fide news interview, given that the subjects were contestants from another CBS show.

"In this case, the CBS "Early Show" interview of contestants from the CBS program "Survivor: Vanuatu" was a cross-promotion of a network's primetime entertainment programming on the same network's morning show," Adelstein said. "It stretches the bounds to argue this is legitimate news or public affairs programming."

The ruling by no means sparked a truce with defendants.

"Today's decision highlights our concern about the government's inability to issue consistent, reasoned decisions in highly sensitive First Amendment cases," Fox spokesman Scott Grogin said. "We look forward to court review, and the clarity we hope it will bring to this area of the law."