Constant pressure from a watchdog outfit keeps stations, networks on edge.
By JONATHAN STORM
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
LOS ANGELES -- As the broadcast networks face the nation's TV critics at their winter meeting here this week, indecency is Topic A.
Easily mobilized and aided by the Internet, a small army has pelted the Federal Communications Commission with protests.
The FCC's $550,000 penalty for the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" may be the best-known case, but another case, involving Fox's 2004 "reality" show "Married by America," carries a proposed fine twice as big.
The decision seems to signal a new direction in enforcement, and it has people in the industry worried, even confused. As many complain that the objections come from a nonrepresentative minority, some of whom have not even seen the programs involved, cautious networks have stepped up diligence while advising producers of popular series not to shift direction.
"The real change is that there's a huge amount of ambiguity," said Alan Wurtzel, chief of NBC's standards and practices department. "You sort of don't know what the rules are."
"There isn't a day that's going by now where we're not affected. We're looking at 'Family Guy' right now, product that aired without incident two or three years ago," said Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman, referring to the irreverent cartoon that started on Fox in 1999, then went to cable, and is returning because of its popularity on DVD. "It's just nebulous."
Too bad, so sad
Lara Mahaney is unsympathetic.
"They should be grateful that they've gotten away with as much as they have for as long as they have," said Mahaney, director of corporate and entertainment affairs at the Parents Television Council, the primary organization stirring the commotion.
The battle over TV indecency is never-ending, rising cyclically and then quieting down again.
This time, however, it's different, and none of the nearly 20 people throughout the business interviewed for this article would speculate on when the controversy would die down.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell says the commission will make a priority of enforcing indecency rules. The issue has gained a special appeal to politicians, who know it is an important issue for some voters. And the complaints keep rolling in, as incidents that used to be dismissed the next day after a couple of yuks at the watercooler take on a life of their own: Nicollette Sheridan drops her towel for Terrell Owens. Rocker Vince Neil wishes bandmate Tommy Lee a profanely happy new year. Randy Moss does a little moon dance.
"Technological advancements have created a media-event echo chamber, where the eventual impact of a televised transgression far exceeds the number of people who were initially watching or offended," said John Rash, senior vice president at the Campbell-Mithun ad agency. "Coupled with talk radio, tempests are being created in teapots in near-record time."
The effect of those tempests varies in different segments of the TV business.
Advertisers are leery, but few have shifted strategies in a culture that frequently rewards the edgy show while it is being vilified. Producers seem most insulated, basically going about their business, while the networks that buy their shows fret.
Out of control
Station owners may be the most nervous, after an apparently precedent-setting decision.
The FCC voided the reality-show tradition, observed since the early '90s with "America's Funniest Home Videos," of blurring certain body parts to get a TV pass. At issue were bachelor-party escapades during "Married by America."
"Although the episode electronically obscures any nudity," FCC commissioners wrote in their "notice of apparent liability" issued Oct. 12, "the sexual nature of the scenes is inescapable."
That was new enough, but what followed really got TV folks' attention: "We propose a $7,000 forfeiture against each Fox Station and Fox Affiliate station" -- $1,183,000 in all.
In the rare previous TV cases in which indecency was found, only the network, and perhaps the handful of stations it owned, were held responsible.
"The lack of [FCC] clarity has increased recently," said Barry Faber, vice president and general counsel of Sinclair Broadcast Group.
For instance, the commission, which does not regulate cable, has indicated that it might change policy and levy multiple fines for each indecent incident, rather than sanctioning an entire program once.
"I don't know how you can program in television with those sorts of guidelines," Faber said.
That's why Sinclair, which owns eight ABC affiliates among its 62 TV stations, joined a group of 66 affiliates in refusing to televise ABC's Veterans Day feed of Steven Spielberg's realistic war film "Saving Private Ryan," a movie that had already aired twice uncut on network TV without significant protest.
The FCC regulations cover broadcasts between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. ET, specifying that to be found indecent, material must, "in context," be "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards."
But like viewers, the five commissioners differ on what that means. Some have said, for instance, that nudity, per se, is not indecent.
FCC chairman Powell, the Republican son of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, has been careful not to say anything is prohibited, acknowledging that broadcasters might long for a "red book of do's and don'ts."
"There are simply too many subtleties and too many contexts in which a given form of speech might occur to generalize a set of rules," he wrote in the Janet Jackson decision.
"I think he could care less about indecency," said the Parents Television Council's Mahaney. "It only became a priority for him when Congress started making it a priority."
The reason for action
Mahaney's group and its president, L. Brent Bozell III, are a main prod to politicians in this round of the indecency wars.
Prominent in the upper-right corner of the council's Internet home page is a Web link: "File a complaint with the FCC."
Commission statistics show that radio and broadcast and cable TV complaints have escalated astronomically, from 111 in 2000 to 1,068,802 in 2004. With the exception of the half-million Super Bowl protests, 99.9 percent of them have come from the Parents Television Council, which says it has more than one million members.
The council, which has called for an investigation of FCC statistics, also orchestrates letter-writing campaigns to broadcasters and advertisers.
"We've had people send in complaints about our programming, and they live in Hawaii," Sinclair's Faber said. "We don't have any television stations in Hawaii."