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Dirty word games

The FCC's rules to shield kids from bad language are senseless when circumventing them is child's play.

March 22, 2008

Prodded by complaints from viewers about offensive television, the Federal Communications Commission has put increasing pressure on broadcasters to keep a civil tongue. In the most extreme instance, the commission issued an order in 2004 declaring that some expletives were so indecent, they could not be uttered on air, even fleetingly, before 10 p.m. An appeals court struck down:8080/isysnative/RDpcT3BpbnNcT1BOXDA2LTE3NjAtYWdfb3BuLnBkZg==/06- 1760-ag_opn.pdf that rule last year, saying the FCC hadn't given sufficient reason for the shift in policy. This week, however, the Supreme Court agreed to consider the case. The court's decision could determine how much live programming remains on free over-the-air radio and TV.

Federal law makes it illegal to utter "obscene, indecent or profane language by means of radio communication." The FCC issued its first penalties for indecent broadcasting in 1975 (in connection with comedian George Carlin's famous "Seven Words" monologue), carving out an exemption when the offending words weren't used deliberately or repeatedly. The new policy eliminated the exemption, exposing broadcasters to hefty penalties for the risque utterances of anyone caught by their microphones.

The change forced networks to delay live broadcasts so censors could bleep any expletive likely to draw a fine. That's a costly and imperfect process, however. The added cost and risk imposed by the rule may be enough to push all live events past 10 p.m. or into the realm of paid TV and subscription radio. And though few might not rue the loss of some awards shows, the displacement of all live events from free TV would surely devalue that medium.

More important, the rule against fleeting indecency can't fulfill its stated purpose, which is to shield young viewers. Kids aren't protected by measures that apply only to a small portion of the programming universe and only between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The limits on broadcasters can easily be circumvented by time-shifting video recorders and online TV sites. Meanwhile, cable and satellite services offer far more offensive fare, regardless of the hour. Ultimately, parents who want to limit what their kids see and hear on TV will have to rely on the filtering tools provided by cable operators, satellite services and set manufacturers. They're bound to be more effective than the FCC.

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