The FCC's tougher obscenity standards - what impact?
A subtle and self-imposed lessening of bawdy or explicit radio talk should result from a recent warning by the Federal Communications Commission. But there will probably be little broad or direct regulatory impact on radio and TV stations. This is how some media analysts describe the likely effect of new restrictions adopted last Thursday by the FCC, partly in response to rising public complaints about offensive programs.Skip to next paragraph
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Specifically, the commission warned two radio stations about sexually explicit material they allegedly aired and, in the case of a third station, sent the matter to the Justice Department for consideration.
The new rules would sharply curtail references by these and other stations to sex and bodily functions by using a broader definition of indecency. For the past 11 years, the FCC's practical limits have been the so-called ``seven dirty words'' that comedian George Carlin defiantly uttered on the air in the early '70s.
But now the commission will use a broader definition of indecency - one included in a 1978 Supreme Court case that addressed the airing of Carlin's routine on WBAI-FM, New York, a Pacifica station. That definition referred to ``language or material that depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs.''
Does this signal a major new regulatory offensive?
``I can't imagine it,'' says electronic-media analyst Merrill Brown, executive editor of the communications magazine Channels. ``I think it's clearly more of a symbolic move than it is a law-enforcement move,'' he stated by phone. ``I think Mark Fowler is making a political statement rather than a regulatory initiative, and he's entitled to that as the [outgoing] chairman of the FCC. He has that kind of `bully pulpit.' It is a statement of our times and of the regime in power now.''
Marvin Bensman, a specialist in broadcast law at Memphis State University, tends to reinforce the point.
``This is really what is known as the `raised eyebrow approach,''' said Professor Bensman by phone. ``It will have a fairly minimal inhibiting effect with broadcasters,'' he continued. ``Basically, I don't think it represents a great change in the position the FCC has had over the years. It's highlighting a concern that they've always had and is similar to a number of other things they've done in the past.
``Broadcasters tend to feel they're already operating a little bit behind the public, and almost all agree they must be aware of what they're broadcasting and take into consideration the audiences that they reach.''
Complaints from some of that audience about the rise of sexually explicit radio talk shows, telephone services, and some TV programming are one of the reasons for the FCC action. Particularly noticeable is the number of ``bawdy'' disc jockeys during the prime drive-time radio listening hours, especially in the morning.
``It's a huge phenomenon across the country,'' says Mr. Brown. ``It's happening everywhere - large markets, small markets. Quite the trend in the last two years.
``FCC regulation ... is symbolic,'' he says, ``because the impact of the license renewal process is more in the eyes of the license holder than it is in the law-enforcement context. I would think that license holders are going to be thinking twice about their programming, coming out of a decision like that, which may well have impact.''
And Bensman thinks the action ``may cool [radio] stations down slightly for a period.''
But he also predicts that ``as time goes on - and it won't be very long - they [stations] will be throwing `OK, is this indecent, is that indecent?' at the FCC ..., and the FCC will respond, `We can't determine whether it is or is not - it depends on the context.' Which means, `Go ahead and do it if you want to, because there's not much we can do to really regulate.'
``What you're looking at [with this rule] is a provision of the Communciations Act, which the FCC cannot modify. Only Congress can,'' says Bensman. So it's a part of the statute under which the FCC operates. It says `indecent, profane, and obscene language is not permitted.'
``Now, it's easy to define obscene - although the Supreme Court has a heck of a time doing it. ... But indecency is something they pretty much ... can't deal with, because what is indecent for you is not indecent for somebody else.''
But TV fare has become a target of many complaints in recent years, especially the image it sometimes creates of an almost wholly permissive society where promiscuous sex has no consequences - no pregnancy, no AIDS, and little or no emotional damage.
Has pressure for change been heavier lately?
``Yes,'' say Bensman, ``it tends to go in cyles, and I think this recent FCC move was a reaction to that kind of pressure.''
Meanwhile, Brown sees ``prime time cooling itself of its own volition ... in the last year or so.'' ``TV viewers are seeing a lessening of sexually explicit programs right now - again a factor of our times, in part a reaction against the sexual revolution, in part the reaction about sexually spread illness,'' Brown adds.
``And if you look at ... the syndication market and the '87 fall season, things are calming on that front dramatically. I see that's happening as we speak. That, too, is a reflection of where we're headed as a society.''
Another media observer, Prof. Alison Alexander of the University of Massachusetts - who keeps a professional eye on television's impact on society - thinks TV is beginning to take notice of some of the ill effects of sexual license.
``There's an increase in the number of what you might call social-issue movies - the made-for-television movies - that deal with some of the dire consequences of our own actions,'' said Professor Alexander by phone.
``Not only the movies about AIDS, but the movies about unwed parents and teen-agers who are pregnant - things like that.''