The Importance of Being Decent

Broadcasters adjust to changing FCC standards


Recent FCC investigations and Congressional moves to increase penalties for indecency have scared the hell out of broadcasters and program producers.

The FCC defines indecent speech as "language that, in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium."


There are no standards specifically set for video images, said Jerald Fritz, senior vice president for Legal and Strategic Affairs for Allbritton Communications' TV stations. But the networks also take the heat for offensive imagery.

"Via our contracts, the network [ABC] would end up paying for us," said Fritz. "They would indemnify us for any fine we got because of programming that they sent us," said Fritz. "I suspect all the networks have some indemnification clause."

Syndicated programs are another matter, however, and cause for greater concern, he said.

"Because we see the advanced descriptions, we can look at [content] beforehand to make sure that it will pass our standards," he said.

Stations have the prerogative of pre-empting programming but can't re-edit it.

"There were several people who were talking about doing that with Saving Private Ryan--to edit out all the 'f-words' and the network said 'no you can't do that'--and the owners of the copyright told the network it couldn't do that," said Fritz.


PBS has persuaded creators to shoot alternative takes for its edgier broadcasts. And, in contrast to the commercial networks' policy of providing one version for national distribution, PBS sometimes provides two alternatives. Both efforts were made for "Dirty War," which ran on PBS a month after its Jan. 24 debut on HBO.

"We talked to HBO and the BBC, which produced it, and they took other angles, so there was no sense that you were missing anything," said Jacoba Atlas, senior vice president and co-chief of PBS Programming. "The same with the 'f-word'; they simply took another take."

Despite these efforts, she said, "A lot of our stations chose not to play a version with the saltiest language in it."

Standards and practices departments make suggestions on scripts, rough cuts and, at times, the final production.

Broadcasters have generally excised indecent language from prerecorded material by one of three techniques: They bleep or drop the offensive audio; they cut the offending scene, insert a cutaway and come back to the action; or they can use audio dialogue replacement (ADR).

ADR involves consulting the copyright owners and often the directors, plus original actors, who may have to be called first to record the new lines.

"Most actors [are] too busy to come in and only get paid scale," said Chuck Filliettaz, founder of Culver City, Calif.-based 2G Digital Post, which is employed by the studios to customize movies for various venues (see "In Praise of Unsung Editors," TV Technology, April 18, 2005). If an actor can't make it, he said, "we go out and find a sound-alike."

Cutting, blurring, pixelating and reconstruction are generally used to rectify offensive video on prerecorded programming.

Live productions tend to rely on time delays, generally ranging from 5 to 10 seconds.

But pixelation, for example, wasn't enough to preclude a record $1.2 million fine levied last October against the 169 Fox stations that ran a particular episode of the network's reality show "Married By America" in April 2003.

Precluding live faux pas is even harder.


"The most significant change over the last couple of years is that now on live entertainment programming, we have both a video and an audio delete capability," said CBS Television Network Executive Vice President Martin Franks, whose duties include presiding over the network's standards and practices department. "In the aftermath of the Super Bowl (incident of 2004), we had to be able to delete video as well."

For CBS, this new capability, he said, involves a "fairly expensive technological procedure that requires a great number of person-hours" [see tech section of this special report]. Franks noted that CBS also implemented "refresher training" for its standards and programming staff.


According to one Fox executive, Fox "dramatically beefed up its standards and practices departments," putting more S&P staff "on the set" following a "first-of-a-kind seminar for every creative executive on the Fox lot," held days after Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at Super Bowl 2004.

Hosted by Rupert Murdoch and CEO Peter Chernin, the event included L. Brent Bozell of the Parents Television Council, Vicky Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation, Capitol Hill staff and FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy.


NBC released a statement last month indicating that it would ramp up its program ratings to give people a better sense of the nature of what a program's content is.

"The cardinal rule is not to violate audience expectations," said Alan Wurtzel, president, Broadcast Standards and Practices, NBC. New content descriptors are expected to roll out this summer, he said.

To do this, the network will review its policies and step up training for editors regarding the ratings and how to comply with them.

"We're basically taking a whole bunch of old shows and looking at them and trying to arrive at a consensus," he said. His concern is that content analysis "certainly is open to interpretation."

But network execs believe there are plenty of nongovernmental resources available to protect viewers from offensive content.

"When we make a mistake we hear from viewers, we hear from affiliates, we hear from advertisers. It's a very fast self-correcting mechanism," said NBC's Wurtzel. Over the past year NBC has run public service announce-

ments in which Katie Couric explains how to use the V-Chip, a technology mandated in the late 1990s to allow viewers to block objectionable content. Wurtzel said more of these spots are expected featuring other network talent.

NBC, Viacom and News Corp. have also provided seed money to "Television Watch," an advocacy group that intends to "educate Americans about tools that already exist [to address content concerns] and to broaden the debate," said spokesman Jim Dyke.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Television Producers and Executives hopes to create a forum for content creators and the FCC to bridge the gap between them.

"There are hundreds of conversations all the time but not together at a high level," said NATPE president Rick Feldman.