Sunday, March 26, 2006

Television Regulation in Web World

In a world where television producers can post their uncut products on the web for fans to view as they meant them to be viewed, the FCC's regulations are becoming increasingly strange. The FCC posted a lengthy diatribe against three years' worth of indecent network television:


Washington, D.C. – The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today released decisions resolving over 300,000 consumer complaints about the broadcast of indecent, profane, and/or obscene television programming. In these decisions, the Commission addresses complaints about nearly 50 television programs broadcast between February 2002 and March 2005. The decisions respond to the public’s growing concern about the content of television programming. At the same time, they provide further information for broadcasters about the kinds of material that are and are not prohibited under the FCC’s indecency and profanity standards.

In the decisions, the Commission takes enforcement action against the broadcast of a wide variety of television programming. The FCC upholds its earlier decision against CBS for the broadcast of indecent material during the February 1, 2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. The Commission rejects CBS’ claim that the pulling off a portion of Janet Jackson’s bustier to reveal her breast is not indecent. The Commission also holds that CBS consciously and willfully failed to take actions to prevent the broadcast of the material, and that CBS is responsible for the halftime show.

The Commission also finds episodes of “Without a Trace” and “The Surreal Life 2,” which contained numerous graphic, sexual images, to be impermissible under the Commission’s indecency standard. The Omnibus Order also finds indecent the broadcast of a movie containing a graphic rape scene and a talk show featuring a female guest who appeared in an open front dress. Finally, the Commission finds indecent and profane several television programs containing offensive language. Where material is found actionable, the Commission sanctions all licensees whose stations are the subject of viewer complaints filed with the Commission.
Finally, the Commission denies complaints regarding numerous other television programs. Although the complained-of material may offend many people, the Commission concludes that the material in 28 television programs involved was not actionable.

Action by the Commission, February 21, 2006, Notices of Apparent Liability and Memorandum Opinion and Order (FCC 06-17). Chairman Martin, Commissioners Copps and Tate; Commissioner Adelstein concurring, dissenting in part. Separate statements issued by Chairman Martin and Commissioners Copps, Adelstein, and Tate.

Action by the Commission, February 21, 2006, Notice of Apparent Liability (FCC 06-18). Chairman Martin, Commissioners Copps and Tate; Commissioner Adelstein concurring. Separate statements issued by Chairman Martin and Commissioners Copps, Adelstein, and Tate.

Action by the Commission, February 21, 2006, Forfeiture Order (FCC 06-19). Chairman Martin, Commissioners Copps and Tate; Commissioner Adelstein concurring. Separate statements issued by Chairman Martin and Commissioners Copps, Adelstein, and Tate.

Press contact: David Fiske at (202) 418-0513


View the original and more here.

But the Boston Globe reported on March 25 that the producers of The Bedford Diaries, a new series based on a college course in human sexuality (!). The producers are dismayed at the network's decision to cut some explicit images from the show -- self-censorship. Here is the Globe report:

Cooling down of 'Bedford Diaries' makes FCC policy a hot-button issue

By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff | March 25, 2006

''The Bedford Diaries," a new WB series that premieres next week, is unequivocally, unapologetically about sex. The ''diaries" in the title are video confessionals about college students' sexual experiences, assigned as homework for a course on human sexuality. (Whether this portends the death of the term paper isn't something the show addresses.)

So the network's decision to cut some explicit images from the show -- an act of preemptive self-censorship that sent ripples through the TV industry this week -- is, in a sense, extraneous. As co-creator Tom Fontana points out, the WB always knew what it was getting.

''We didn't lie to them," he said in a phone interview. ''We didn't say we were going to do [a series about] accountants."

Things changed for the network censors last week after the Federal Communications Commission proposed $4 million in indecency fines against television stations -- the bulk of them to a group of CBS affiliates, for airing an episode of ''Without a Trace" that featured a teen orgy. Suddenly, ''they were afraid," Fontana said of WB executives. ''They didn't know if it was indecent. They were afraid it was indecent. And that was what really roiled me."

Many industry-watchers have reacted that way, saying the fines are casting a pall over broadcast TV. But while an edited version will premiere Wednesday at 9 p.m. the deleted scenes have hardly disappeared from public view. On Friday, the WB posted an uncut version of the ''Bedford Diaries" pilot on its website. And some say the ''Bedford" affair actually proves that, in an age of streaming video, iPods, and PlayStation Portables, the FCC's regulatory teeth are less effective than ever.

''This game is up," said Adam Thierer, senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a market-based think tank in Washington, D.C. ''They're just continuing to try to exert whatever authority they have, and all they really have is authority over broadcast television and radio. This policy is now highly illogical, increasingly unworkable, and blatantly unfair."

The deleted ''Bedford Diaries" scenes -- which Fontana said he had no hand in choosing -- aren't crucial to any story lines or characters' psychodramas. For the most part, the WB cut images that appear on the screen for a matter of seconds: a girl with a hand in her pants, two girls kissing on a dare. A close-up of a woman modeling nude for an artist has been cut, but wider shots of the scene will remain. The bare behind of a streaker will be blurred. A silhouetted shot of a woman's bare breast will be altered so the nipple isn't visible.

In a statement this week, WB chairman Garth Ancier said the cuts were made ''out of an abundance of caution."

Fontana, whose previous credits include ''Homicide: Life on the Street" and the HBO series ''Oz," decried the move. But he also called the Web posting ''a brilliant compromise on WB's part. It will actually put the question before the American public, if they have any interest -- to be able to see the show the way we intended it to be, and then watch it on Wednesday night the way that the fear mongers have decided the American public should watch it."

But some advocates of increased regulation say the deleted scenes seem gratuitous at best -- and call the WB's dual move a sign that the FCC needs to extend its reach.

''You have to ask yourselves, what is the motivation for putting a show like this on TV in the first place?" said Melissa Caldwell, senior director of research at the Parents' Television Council, an advocacy group that has largely been responsible for a recent uptick in FCC complaints. ''They're trying to give this impression that the FCC is out of control and capricious and arbitrary, and that's not the case at all."

Still, Thierer said it's not surprising that networks claim confusion about the FCC's stance. In this month's lengthy ruling, he noted, the government recommended fines for a Martin Scorsese-produced PBS documentary about the blues, which contained explicit language. But the FCC chose not to fine an episode of ''The Oprah Winfrey Show" that featured graphic descriptions of teen sex.

''This is what I call a nonstandard," Thierer said. ''There is no standard there. There is no policy."

And for young, tech-savvy viewers, there is less and less distinction between TV and other media. Networks, including the WB, have increasingly posted their shows on the Web and iTunes. And the viewers most likely to watch a college drama, Thierer says, are probably most likely to search for it online.

''It's all being done in the name of protecting the children, but the children have increasingly bolted from this medium," he says. ''The government is essentially protecting adults from themselves."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

I like to check to see if Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has anything to say about things like censorship, but this doesn't really come up on their screen. Still, here is their link -- they are a terrific resource for all kinds of electronic rights issues: EFF

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is another good resource for tracking civil rights issues. Again, this is more of a case where people are self-helping and evading the regulation through technology, but here is the ACLU link.

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