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Will Networks Push the Envelope After FCC Indecency Rules Are Thrown Out?

by Joel Keller, posted Jul 13th 2010 8:02PM
'Class Clown' by George Carlin - album coverToday, a U.S. Appeals court ruled that the FCC's indecency rules were "unconstitutionally vague," and overturned the commission's entire slate of indecency rules.

This ruling was in response to cases of "fleeting" expletives or incidents, like the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction or Bono uttering the f-word at the Golden Globes; the court felt that there "is ample evidence in the record that the FCC's indecency policy has chilled protected speech."

But the impact of this ruling will reverberate much more than you think; the court threw out the entire set of indecency rules the FCC had been using since 1978, after a radio station played George Carlin's 'Seven Dirty Words' routine on the air. The court just felt that it didn't pass constitutional muster that, for instance, the commission could judge that the use of 'bulls--t' in an 'NYPD Blue' episode was indecent, but the use of 'd--k' and 'd--khead' were not.

Of course, most people who have never been a fan of the commission's random indecency rules could have told you that years ago. But the big question now is: what does this mean for the broadcast networks?

That answer seems pretty easy: Until the FCC can come up with an indecency policy that can be deemed constitutional, the broadcast networks are likely going to use this opportunity to push the envelope even further than they do now, especially after 10PM.

For years now, the broadcast networks have been getting their butts handed to them by cable. Even basic cable, not governed by the FCC, have taken to loosening their language requirements to the point where it seems that part of each channel's personality is classified by how far they go with their shows' language.

On AMC you occasionally hear the s-word, for instance, but never anything too dirty. Same with TNT. Comedy Central lets a lot of words and phrases go, but reserves the dirtiest stuff for its 'Secret Stash' broadcast in the wee hours of the morning. FX, though, has taken full advantage of this lack of government oversight, as Louis C.K. so vividly and explicitly explained to me earlier this year. But even there, they have limits... it's just that those limits are much less limited than most (trust me, read the interview and you'll be surprised at how loose those limits are).

It's tough for the broadcast networks to compete with that, which is why they tried to push matters during the Clinton administration, where shows like 'NYPD Blue' showed side-boob and the cops called each other "a--hole." But after the Janet Jackson Nipplegate incident, the broadcast nets recoiled to the point where there's likely less salty dialogue in today's network TV than there was twenty years ago.

But in those heady days of the '90s, the broadcast networks were only competing with Showtime, HBO and other premium channels. With basic cable networks all over the dial amping up their original programming, things are only going to get more competitive.

The broadcast networks are surely going to use this opportunity to get more creative with language and sexual situations. All the 'NYPD Blue' words are going to come back, as will the s-word, which was uttered during episodes of 'Chicago Hope' and 'ER' in the '90s and early '00s. But I can also see phrases that are more sexual in nature making it to some programs; imagine 'Two and a Half Men' with the language of 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia,' and you'll see that we may be in for a new era in network programming.

Seriously, though, it's about time. Not every network show needs to have realistic, gritty dialogue, but at least this ruling gives the networks the opportunity to present the kind of programming their cable counterparts have been able to present for more than a decade without fear of massive and random fines. Hopefully, they'll be able to self-govern as well as the cable nets have. That's something that's a whole other debate, though.

What do you think? Will the networks use this opportunity to make their shows more realistic / raunchy?

(Follow @joelkeller on Twitter.)

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I'm glad that the US Court Of Appeals sided with Network TV as the fCC Indecency rules is cenorship & breaking the first amendment as well which isn't right at all. I believe that parents not government should be making the choice of what is good or isn't good on TV not FCC which is useless has got to go.

I can't stand these groups like PTC and what they say which there claims are baseless & out touch with reality everything they say is lies and they also come up with baseless studies as well with made up data to prove there point that there right when fact it's wrong and BS as well.

July 18 2010 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Frankly, it's about time. I agree with the sentiment that more explicit sex talk and a few extra curse words won't spice up a mundane premise or tired situational comedy but it does open the gates to more natural conversation and situations.

The FCC and the morality police just need to do the wise thing, set a watershed time (9pm; 10pm to be safe, I guess), and tell those who don't like such language and sexuality to turn off their TV and/or set parental controls. It's not the FCC's job to play parents.

I want more adult situations all over TV. It's not as if NBC or CBS is going to start pumping out softcore porn or expletive-riddled dialogue but someone tell me how a show like Parenthood won't improve when someone can utter "sh@$#" or "dick" like any upset parent or child would? Talk about sex isn't natural when it's covered in clinical talk--TV isn't a classroom or a doctor's office. No one talks to their friends or significant others using sanitary tones very often.

July 14 2010 at 4:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Jen: indeed, but we can't have a rational debate about this, or ANY subject (drugs, national defense, taxes, even education) as long as everyone is invoking "protecting the children" to get their own stupid agenda passed. It's the ultimate red herring. But unfortunately it works. Not saying we should take away women's right to vote, but ever since women got the franchise, politicians have been preying on and taking advantage of the maternal instinct, and a vast majority of women (which make up 50% of the voting base) have shown they cannot think rationally when children are involved. So politicians make sure children are ALWAYS involved. So you hear, "If american children get to hear the same content Canadians and other "european" types hear, they'll become violent little socialists and we have [made up] our own studies with [fake] data that proves it."

July 14 2010 at 4:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bruce's comment

You hit the nail on the head bruce I agree. I have been saying that TV here needs to become more like Canada & Europe. I don't like groups like PTC that make up baseless studies with phoney data to back up there claims which aren't true at all. Parents not government to stay out of TV I don't want cenorship.

July 18 2010 at 1:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Doc Spector

Some programs will push the limits, and most will not. People who don't want to hear it can pay attention to the ratings for the program (or tell their TV not to show those shows in the first place). If people don't want to hear the swearing, those shows won't do well and the networks will adjust. If people do watch those shows, the networks will notice that, too. It seems highly unlikely that any of the networks will be programming "Vice Squad Undercover Cops" or "Chicago Gynecological Hospital" or "Who wants to take their clothes off for America?" for 7 or 8pm, even if they do want to run edgier programs

July 14 2010 at 1:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I say we ban the use of the word "children" in this debate. Once that's done, the answer is crystal clear - just leave it alone and keep the FCC out of censorship entirely.

July 14 2010 at 12:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bruce's comment

You mean we may actually get access to the same sort of content on our national networks as the Canadians?

July 14 2010 at 1:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The networks aren't being hammered in the ratings by cable because of language restrictions, but from lack of creativity. It doesn't help that nearly 1/3 of a show's run-time consists of commercials that are more offensive in their lack of creativity than any salty language.

USA Networks has a great track record with original series and almost every single one of them is "family friendly." Imagine that! A network that actually has toned down the expletives and innuendo proving it can succeed with imagination and intelligence.

It's not the words or the nudity, it's the fact that too many shows think that's all it takes to get eyes on the screen. That probably works for one or two episodes and then those eyes wander to something more entertaining on the aforementioned network.

July 13 2010 at 11:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

We are all getting ahead of ourselves. The FCC is going to be appealing and ultimately, nothing will be decided until the Supreme Court has there say (and they will have a say I'm sure).

That being said, I can't wait to see the first time tvsquad (and to be fair all tv review sites) when they put up favorite quotes from a tv show and feel obliged to include the random great line that happened to include an obscenity.

I don't ultimately expect the decision to impact the quality of any of the tv shows though (except maybe a slightly more amusing South Park when they create an episode about this particular decision).

July 13 2010 at 10:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh Noes! Network television might turn into the kind of slum of swearing and nudity represented by...well...by the BBC.

July 13 2010 at 10:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to edgore's comment

Your a prude I see nothing wrong with what the BBC does. I like that some of there shows are racy & push the envelope that is what makes TV exciting. I know some BBC shows would have to be tone down if they were say on ABC, Fox, NBC, CBS, The CW. Skins makes Gossip Girl & 90210 pretty tame makes groups like PTC out touch which they are and they shouldn't be making big deal out of Gossip Girl or 90210.

Parents not government shouldn't be telling people what they watch on TV that should be my choice. TV is no worse than what it was 10 or 20 years ago and that is a fact.

July 18 2010 at 1:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think you missed the sarcasm.

July 19 2010 at 4:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The idea that TV shows have to have swear words or nudity in order to be edgy is complete crap. There are many successful series on basic cable that are edgy and original; not all of them are filled with cussing and nudity, many of them are not.

The networks aren't failing because they can't use excessive swear words or show a little T&A. The networks are failing because they have greater competition and for better or worse basic cable is more willing to push the envelope with something original. If it doesn't play to their favorite demographic, the networks aren't interested.

July 13 2010 at 9:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

its not a lack of a few words that have made tv programs near unwatchable and brought down network revenues. its an overuse of the same formulas. medical dramas, police procedurals, legal dramas, reality shows. these 4 types of shows seem to makeup 90% of all programming. I do not want to see any more cop, doctor, lawyer, reality shows. What is the percentage of people that do not watch tv. I think its more than those who do watch tv.

July 13 2010 at 8:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to brad456's comment

Your dead wrong Brad I think more people still watch TV than they don't watch TV. And I can fine almost anything on TV.

July 18 2010 at 1:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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