Broadcast TV has had enough and won't take it anymore. It's lost too many viewers to cable shows like "The Sopranos" and appears eager to air more sex, violence, and obscenities. So last week, ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC sued the Federal Communications Commission over its curbs on indecency.
Specifically, the suit, joined by many local stations, challenges a March 15 FCC ruling that found some broadcasts of ABC's drama "NYPD Blue," the CBS News program "The Early Show," and "Billboard Music Awards" on FOX to contain obscenities. But behind this suit is a worry that the increasingly tough rulings by the Federal Communications Commission might result in fines that could really cut into TV stations' profits. And they fear the FCC might start yanking the licenses of errant broadcasters.
The suit in essence challenges decades of FCC authority over risqué content, the kind the agency defines in general as: "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory references."
For broadcast TV, such wording is too vague and FCC enforcement is too arbitrary. They want either undebatable rules on taboos, or the preferred option, no federal standards at all. They say consumers now have many more competing and unregulated media - the latest: iPod casting - to continue subjecting broadcast TV (and land radio) to federal smut rules that erode the First Amendment.
What's more, they say, parents have the bulk of responsibility - not to mention blocking technology such as V-chips - to shield children.
Many parents say no. Broadcast TV still dominates the market and government must help shield children, even from the secondhand influence of other children allowed to view offensive shows. And, they add, cable TV, even though it is a purchased service not using the government-owned airwaves, should also be FCC regulated.
By suing now, broadcast TV is banking on a Supreme Court that's become more legally conservative, one that may put more weight on free speech and overturn its 1978 ruling that upheld the FCC's authority to curb indecency. (Congress, pressured by parents, won't aid the TV lobby.)
The high court can only do so much in this skirmish of the culture wars. Defining indecency with any bright lines of legal precision is nearly impossible. An agency like the FCC will still need to define "community broadcast standards" in a polyglot nation of 300 million people and make subjective judgments. As former high court justice Potter Stewart said about defining pornography: "I know it when I see it."
The FCC does need to work with the networks better, speeding up its process and offering more consistent and timely guidance, but without loosening standards. It could become less of a policing agency and more of a bridge-builder between the industry and various consumers of TV.
Families with young children can do much to restrict access to coarse and explicit TV. But an FCC that's more sensitive to the industry's need for specific and quick guidance in a new media age can still be an aiding arm for many families.