In one of its most significant actions in years regarding what one commissioner called "an onslaught of on-air smut," the Federal Communications Commission issued a long-awaited policy statement Friday about broadcast indecency standards.
The 28-page document, summarizing and explaining how the commission reaches its decisions, includes detailed examples of what the FCC has previously ruled to be unacceptable. Howard Stern, who has been fined millions of dollars for his radio show, is named only once, while "Bubba the Love Sponge" of WXTB-FM in Tampa, Fla., is cited four times.
Although the report was approved by a 3-1 vote, the commission appeared to be badly split. Commissioner Susan Ness, decrying "an onslaught of on-air smut" and a "festering problem of indecency on the airwaves," urged broadcasters to work with Congress and the president to reinstate a voluntary code of conduct. But Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth argued that, with the Internet and cable TV, there are so many sources of content that all restrictions should be eliminated.
Still, they both supported the statement. The one dissenter, Gloria Tristani, said the real problem was "lax enforcement" of the rules, that the statement would become "a how-to manual" for broadcasters, and demanded that the FCC "get serious" about enforcement.
Indecency is defined, the FCC said, as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs."
But indecency, it continued, depends heavily on the context of the broadcast; one or two words in a newscast are acceptable, as is an Oprah Winfrey program about sex. But persistent, clear sexual innuendo might be indecent. In addition, the measurements of "patently offensive" and "contemporary community standards" do not refer to any one town or area, and do not consider the sensibilities of any one individual.
"The full context is critically important," the FCC said.
The principal elements in deciding whether a broadcast is indecent, according to the statement, are the explicitness or graphic nature of the description, whether the matter is dwelt upon or repeated at length and, most important, "whether it appears to pander or is used to titillate, or whether the material appears to have been presented for its shock value."
The broadcast industry had no immediate response to the statement. "Our lawyers are looking over it," said Dennis Wharton of the National Assn. of Broadcasters.