For the first time in seven years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined a television station $325,000 for violating broadcast decency laws. After years of court battles and legal challenges from the broadcast networks, this action by the FCC should serve as a warning to the broadcasters that their days of running roughshod over indecency laws are over.
The case involved a CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Virginia, which aired pornography in the background of one of its news segments.
Clearly, this was a violation of the broadcast indecency law. The FCC was right in handing down a maximum sentence to the broadcast affiliate.
Years of inaction from the FCC seem to have left broadcasters with the mistaken notion that broadcast decency standards are a relic of the past, and it shows in the content they’ve been pushing into America’s homes.
Week-in and week-out, the networks bombard TV audiences with graphic and gratuitous sexual content and profanity, not because audiences are demanding it, but because they believe they can.
Earlier this year, a Family Guy episode brazenly included reference to a sex act with a minor called a “Frosty Jim,” despite the fact that ten years prior, the FCC fined radio station WKRK-FM for airing similarly explicit descriptions of aberrant sexual conduct. Why would the network do something so risky? The only plausible explanation is that they assumed they would get away with it.
Executives and attorneys for the big four (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) have argued, “We don’t need any laws. These laws are outmoded. Kids are seeing worse on the internet. Besides, you can trust us. Look, we’ve given you television ratings, haven’t we? Doesn’t that prove we aren’t bad guys?”
We are supposed to trust them, in spite of the fact that they waged a nearly ten-year legal battle for the right to air f-bombs and nudity over the publicly-owned broadcast airwaves. We are supposed to trust them, in spite of the fact that the networks have never seen fit to rate anything they air as suitable only for adult audiences – that includes graphic depictions of rape, references to bestiality, incest. We are supposed to trust them in spite of the fact that we have seen a deliberate and aggressive push to make nothing off-limits, regardless of time of day, regardless of who is watching.
But despite the networks’ best efforts to overturn the broadcast decency laws, they still stand; and they need to be enforced.
In its monumental 2013 ruling, the Supreme Court put the networks on notice that they cannot count on the courts allowing them to get away with broadcasting indecency in the future: “It is now clear that the brevity of an indecent broadcast — be it word or image — cannot immunize it from FCC censure. Any future ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ [as in the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident] will not be protected on the ground relied on by the court [in this case],” the ruling said.
We are now nearly two years removed from the Supreme Court ruling, and complaints from outraged citizens have been piling-up, un-adjudicated, all that time, leaving many to wonder why the FCC was abandoning cause they fought for in the courts for so long. This week’s FCC ruling is a great first step, but families deserve more.
Some may wonder why the broadcast indecency law still matters with in multi-channel, multi-screen universe. Here’s why: broadcast networks use the publicly-owned airwaves for free in exchange for abiding by this law and agreeing to not air sexually explicit material during hours when children are more likely to be in the viewing audience. The airwaves are truly a public resource.
While we may not be willing to admit it, what people view on TV matters, and it can have an impact. Children cannot un-see or un-hear something explicit, fleeting or not.
This law is just good common sense. We hope the FCC continues to enforce the law and to protect another very important resource: our children.
Melissa Henson is the director of grassroots education and activism for the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. (www.parentstv.org)