FCC retracts indecency fines

Once again revising its television indecency campaign, the FCC now says profanities may be OK if broadcast in the context of news programming. However, the commission majority remains steadfast in prohibiting such language in entertainment fare.

The commission reversed a ruling it had made last March that determined the use of the word “bullshitter” on CBS’ “The Early Show” was indecent. A contestant of the network’s “Survivor” series in a live interview used the term.

Last week the FCC found “the broadcast of the ‘S-Word’ during ‘The Early Show’ was neither indecent nor profane in this instance due to the fact that it occurred during news programming.”

The commission also rejected a complaint about coarse language on several episodes of ABC’s “NYPD Blue.” However, in this case, the reason was a technicality. A viewer outside of its market made the complaint against a TV station, the FCC said.

However, the regulators upheld earlier rulings from March on unscripted live entertainment broadcasts. “The use of offensive language by participants in the 2003 ‘Billboard Music Awards’ and the 2002 ‘Billboard Music Awards’ was indecent and profane,” the FCC said.

In the 2002 awards show, Cher uttered the “F-word.” In 2003, Nicole Richie used the “F-word” and the “S-word” when presenting an award.

“Hollywood continues to argue they should be able to say the F-word on television whenever they want … the commission again disagrees,’’ FCC chairman Kevin Martin told the Los Angeles Times.

However, the FCC’s revised actions may have more to do with anticipated court decisions than a change of heart by commissioners. A lawsuit by the four major broadcast TV networks that challenges the decisions from last March is pending. The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York gave the FCC until last week to reconsider those indecency decisions because of some unusual circumstances.

Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein suggested that the reversals were not made on merit but to improve the agency’s chances of winning the broadcasters’ lawsuit by eliminating its most vulnerable parts.

“Litigation strategy should not be the dominant factor guiding policy when 1st Amendment protections are at stake,” Adelstein wrote in a statement criticizing the strategy.