In a move that seems certain to force a showdown over what constitutes indecency on the airwaves, four TV broadcast networks and their affiliates announced Friday that they had united to challenge a Federal Communications Commission ruling that deemed language used in several of their shows indecent.
CBS, Fox, ABC and Hearst-Argyle Television Inc. filed notices of appeal in federal court in New York and Washington late Thursday and early Friday.
They are seeking to overturn a March 15 ruling that found some broadcasts of the CBS News program "The Early Show," "Billboard Music Awards" on Fox and ABC's drama "NYPD Blue" to be indecent because they contained variations on two obscenities: what people on both sides of the issue refer to as the "F-word" and the "S-word."
Of the offending incidents, which all aired between 2002 and 2004, those on CBS and Fox involved words that the networks said were blurted out spontaneously. Those on ABC were scripted.
None of the incidents involved NBC, but the network filed a petition to intervene on behalf of the three other networks and their affiliates. NBC is waiting to resolve its own FCC complaints, including one involving U2 lead singer Bono, who uttered an obscenity while accepting an award at the 2003 Golden Globes.
The networks want the FCC to not only reverse its ruling but also to establish clearer guidelines about what is indecent.
In addition to going to court, the networks and affiliate groups representing more than 800 of the nation's TV stations issued an unusual joint statement Friday, calling the ruling unconstitutional and arguing that any obscenities contained in the programs were "fleeting, isolated -- and in some cases unintentional."
"The FCC overstepped its authority in an attempt to regulate content protected by the 1st Amendment, acted arbitrarily and failed to provide broadcasters with a clear and consistent standard for determining what content the government intends to penalize," the statement said.
The FCC quickly defended its ruling, saying it was supported by legal precedent.
"Over 20 years ago, the Supreme Court upheld the FCC's ruling that George Carlin's monologue about the 'Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say on Television and Radio' was indecent," FCC spokeswoman Tamara Lipper said. "Today, Disney, CBS and Fox challenged that precedent and said that they should be able to say two of those words."
Walt Disney Co. owns ABC, News Corp. owns Fox Broadcasting, CBS Corp. owns CBS, and General Electric Co. owns NBC. Hearst-Argyle is ABC's largest affiliate group.
Ever since Janet Jackson exposed her breast during CBS' broadcast of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, some parent groups have been lobbying the government to crack down on what they see as immoral conduct shown in a positive light on television.
Since then, station owners have struggled to understand what exactly will provoke an FCC fine, said one station executive who asked not to be named for fear of angering agency officials.
For example, dozens of ABC affiliate stations preempted the broadcast of the film "Saving Private Ryan" in 2004 because it contained two obscenities. The stations, this executive said, sought clarification from the FCC, but when the agency didn't offer a definitive ruling, the stations pulled the movie rather than risk a fine.
Hollywood too has adopted an informal policy of self-censorship. Veteran television producer Tom Fontana, who tangled with the WB network over his provocative new series "The Bedford Diaries" this year, notes that there has been a discernible chilling effect as network executives attempt to tone down programming that they fear the FCC might find objectionable.
When reached Friday, Fontana applauded the networks and stations' attempt to push back. Without such a move, he asked, "are we one step away from the FCC telling NBC's Brian Williams that he can't do a story about teen sex because it's indecent?"
Privately, network executives vowed that this week's filings were the first of what will be many challenges they intend to file against the FCC in the coming months.
TV station executives said Friday that they signed on to the effort because they had the most to lose. Stations, not networks, are the entities that are fined by the FCC, and they risk the ultimate punishment: having their broadcast licenses revoked.
At the same time, TV stations and networks are competing with other forms of entertainment that are not regulated by the FCC. One station owner said that compared with violent video games, pornography and Viagra e-mails proliferating on the Internet and far more racy fare shown every night on cable channels, occasional use of an obscenity on network TV was tame.
But L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, which spearheaded an Internet campaign to petition the FCC about several programs, said such arguments -- and the appeals filed this week -- only prove that the heads of networks and TV stations "are even slimier than I thought."