In a move that seems certain to force a showdown over what constitutes indecency on the airwaves, four broadcast networks and their affiliates say they are uniting to challenge a Federal Communications Commission ruling that deemed language used in several of their shows indecent.
CBS, Fox, ABC and Hearst-Argyle Television Inc., the largest owner of ABC affiliates, filed notices of appeal in federal court in New York and Washington late last week.
They are seeking to overturn a March 15 FCC ruling that found some broadcasts of CBS' "Early Show," the Billboard Music Awards on FOX and ABC's drama "NYPD Blue" to be indecent because they contained variations on two obscenities: what people on both sides of the issue refer to as the "F-word" and the "S-word."
Of the offending incidents, which all aired between 2002 and 2004, those on CBS and FOX involved words that the networks said were blurted out spontaneously. Those on ABC were scripted.
None of the incidents involved NBC, but the network filed a petition to intervene on behalf of the three other networks and their affiliates. NBC is waiting to resolve its own FCC complaints, including one involving U2 lead singer Bono, who uttered an obscenity while accepting an award at the 2003 Golden Globes.
The networks want the FCC not only to reverse its ruling but also to establish clearer guidelines about what is indecent.
In addition to going to court, the networks and affiliate groups representing more than 800 of the nation's TV stations issued an unusual joint statement Friday, calling the ruling unconstitutional and arguing that any obscenities contained in the programs were "fleeting, isolated -- and in some cases unintentional."
"The FCC overstepped its authority in an attempt to regulate content protected by the 1st Amendment, acted arbitrarily and failed to provide broadcasters with a clear and consistent standard for determining what content the government intends to penalize," the statement says.
The FCC quickly defended its ruling, saying it was supported by legal precedent.
"Over 20 years ago, the Supreme Court upheld the FCC's ruling that George Carlin's monologue about the 'Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say on Television and Radio' was indecent," FCC spokeswoman Tamara Lipper said. "Today, Disney, CBS and FOX challenged that precedent and said that they should be able to say two of those words."
Ever since Janet Jackson exposed her breast during CBS' broadcast of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, some parent groups have been lobbying the government to crack down on what they see as immoral conduct shown in a positive light on television.
Since then, station owners have struggled to understand what exactly will provoke an FCC fine, says one station executive who asked not to be named for fear of angering agency officials.
For example, dozens of ABC affiliate stations preempted the broadcast of the film "Saving Private Ryan" in 2004 because it contained two obscenities. The stations, this executive said, sought clarification from the FCC, but when the agency didn't offer a definitive ruling, the stations pulled the movie rather than risk a fine.
Privately, network executives vow that last week's filings were the first of what will be many challenges they intend to file against the FCC in the coming months.
TV station executives say they signed on to the effort because they had the most to lose. Stations, not networks, are the entities that are fined by the FCC, and they risk the ultimate punishment: having their broadcast licenses revoked.
But L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, which spearheaded an Internet campaign to petition the FCC about several programs, said such arguments -- and the appeals filed this week -- only prove that the heads of networks and TV stations "are even slimier than I thought."
"The broadcast networks are spitting in the faces of millions of Americans by saying they should be allowed to air the F-word and S-word on television," Bozell said. "The networks are showing the degree to which they are determined to go to pollute our airwaves."
The cases cited by the networks in this week's court papers garnered little attention when the FCC released its March 15 rulings, which also included a record $3.6-million fine (since trimmed to $3.3 million) for the airing of a simulated orgy in CBS' hit drama "Without a Trace."
The network-cited incidents, by contrast, prompted no fines. The one on "The Early Show" occurred in December 2004, when a contestant from "Survivor: Vanuatu" referred to another contestant as a "bullsh**ter" during an interview. The FCC found the use of the word indecent but did not fine the CBS stations, saying the agency had not established a precedent for an isolated use of the "s***" at the time of the telecast.
In the case of "NYPD Blue," the agency found at least six episodes of the Steven Bochco drama in early 2003 had used the word. The FCC found the use indecent when the show ran at 9 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones, but not when the series aired at 10 p.m. on the East and West coasts.
The FOX incident involved a 2003 exchange between Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, who were presenting a trophy at the Billboard Music Awards.Copyright © 2015, CT Now