6 ‘Indecent’ Moments That Fueled TV’s Feud With the FCC

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake at Super Bowl XXXVIII (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake at Super Bowl XXXVIII (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Should TV networks have to pay a fine every time some celeb blurts out a curse word on live TV?

A New York appeals court didn’t think so. In a decision this week, the court struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s prohibition against so-called “fleeting expletives” such as the ones uttered by Cher at the 2002 Billboard Music Awards (“People have been telling me I’m on the way out every year, right? So f–k them”); Nicole Richie the following year at the Billboard awards (saying to Paris Hilton, “Have you ever tried to get cow s–t out of a Prada purse. It’s not so f—–g simple”); and Bono receiving kudos at the 2003 Golden Globes (“This is really, really f—–g brilliant”).

The TV industry’s reaction to the landmark decision was swift, including this timely Tweet from Conan O’Brien: “The courts have slashed FCC policy, relaxing the ban on TV profanity. Coming this Fall to TBS: ‘Conan’s G*d Damn F***ing Sh*t A**hole Hour’!

The court said the FCC’s policy against fleeting expletives was too vague. In fact, the FCC’s rules on “obscenity” and “indecency” have been difficult to pin down for a very long time, which is why so many of its highest-profile cases wind up in courts, where further confusion inevitably sets in. Here’s a list of the most infamous FCC indecency cases:

1) The George Carlin case: It’s the court decision from 1978 stemming from one New York man’s complaint about a listener-supported radio station that aired Carlin’s uncensored “Filthy Words” routine. A Supreme Court decision said such material shouldn’t air when kids were likely to be awake, and the case became an informal guideline for words that were not to be aired on TV (taboos which are all but shattered today, save for a handful of choice expletives). Watch Carlin’s infamous routine on YouTube (Warning: coarse language).

2) ‘Without a Trace’: This CBS series landed in hot water with the FCC six weeks into its second season in November 2003 with an episode titled “Our Sons and Daughters.” It depicted teen-aged drug use and sex orgies. Fines might have amounted to more than $3.6 million, but CBS settled with the FCC for $300,000.

3) ‘NYPD Blue’: A 2003 episode titled “Nude Awakening,” in which Andy Sipowicz’s young son walked in on Andy’s girlfriend Connie (Charlotte Ross) as she prepared to take a shower, earned the ABC cop show the biggest fine in FCC history – $1.4 million divided among the stations that aired the episode. Filmed from the side, Ross was seen partially nude – the silhouette of one breast and her buttocks were clearly visible. ABC is appealing the fine.

4) ‘Married’… With Problems: Don’t invite the FCC to your next bachelor or bachelorette party: The commission fined Fox $1.2 million for the short-lived 2003 reality series “Married by America” for an episode that depicted strippers at a bachelor party (their nudity was pixellated, but not to the FCC’s satisfaction) and at least one scene involving a partygoer licking whip cream off a stripper’s nipple. Speaking of which….

5) Nipplegate: Fleeting expletives? What about fleeting wardrobe malfunctions? In what may be the most notorious FCC case ever, Justin Timberlake ripped off Janet Jackson’s top during the Super Bowl half-time show on CBS in 2004, exposing one of Janet’s breasts for a millisecond, maybe two. CBS was fined $550,000, setting a new FCC record.

6) Bad ‘Dad’: Just last January, the FCC took aim at Fox’s ‘American Dad’ for an episode titled “Don’t Look a Smith Horse in the Mouth,” in which dad Stan appears to, um, manually cause a horse to ejaculate. The FCC claimed it received more than 100,000 complaints about the Seth MacFarlane-produced program. A decision on a possible fine is still pending.

The real problem is that the cat is out of the bag where government control of TV shows is concerned. TV is already awash with profanity. Sure, the cussing gets bleeped out on reality fare such as ‘Jersey Shore’ or any Gordon Ramsay show. Kudoscasts such as MTV’s Movie Awards make sport of scripting curse words, if only so they can then “bleep” them in (theoretically) titillating fashion.

But except for a handful of shows that blur the speaker’s lips so you can’t “read” what they said, the cussing is pretty #@*$ing obvious.

Let’s face it: TV is becoming more and more of a free-for-all in what it can and will show.

Should TV programmers simply police their own airwaves? Or do we need a government agency like the FCC to keep the programmers in line?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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