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Stakes Higher in Debate Over Television Indecency


Many analysts say the landscape of broadcast media changed irreversibly after last year's broadcast of the American football Superbowl championship - the country's most watched television event of the year. Hundreds of thousands of American families gathered around their television on a Sunday afternoon. A half-time performance ended with singer Justin Timberlake ripping off part of Janet Jackson's black leather top, exposing her bare breast to a TV audience of about 90 million. More than a quarter of a million Americans complained that the sexual references and nudity were inappropriate for what has been a family event. The furor sparked a government crackdown on broadcast obscenity that continues today.

The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, is a government agency that regulates broadcasters who use public frequencies. In return, these broadcasters pledge to serve the public interest and meet FCC guidelines of decency. The Superbowl broadcast was ruled indecent, which the FCC describes as anything that portrays sexual actions in an offensive way.

In the near future, a single broadcast like that of Janet Jackson's nudity could cost a television network a whopping half a million-dollar fine - more than 10 times the current fee. The U.S. House of Representatives approved the increase, a measure that has wide bi-partisan support and is expected to win senate approval this year. Janet LaRue, legal counsel for Concerned Women for America, a Christian public policy group, says the move is long overdue.

“In order to deter violations of our federal broadcast decency standards, broadcast fines have to be high," she said. "When you incur fines of only $ 32,000 against American broadcaster CBS television, for example, it is just pocket change. Broadcasters have been pushing the envelope, and the lax enforcement hasn't acted as a deterrent. So the nature of programming has become more and more explicit.”

But John Watson, professor of law at the American University in Washington, says the definition of indecency is not precise and the FCC has been inconsistent in its enforcement. This lack of clarity has had a chilling effect on broadcasters. “They don't want to cross the line that they really cannot see very clearly," he said. "So they will stay far, far away from the line. As a result, they will produce programming that is acceptable for a 10 year old.”

Professor Watson warns the new fines will also push broadcasters to censor some programming and remain overly cautious. He cites the example of the airing of the Second World War movie Saving Private Ryan by the American broadcaster ABC. The scenes of battle in the movie include expletives that the FCC deemed unallowable in other rulings, prompting more than 60 affiliate stations to refuse to put the motion picture on the public airwaves. The FCC ruled that given the historical context of the movie, such vulgar language was acceptable.

Mrs. LaRue of the Christian group Concerned Women for America says much of today's television broadcasting contains language and obscenities designed to shock audiences. In her opinion, this leads to a coarsening of American children who imitate the vulgar language and sexual activities they see on television.

Beyond the public airwaves, many broadcasters use private cable and satellite channels to broadcast material to paid subscribers. Mrs. LaRue believes the FCC should regulate these private broadcasters as well. “It is time that the indecency regulations apply to cable as well as satellite simply because it is just as pervasive and available to children and is far more sexually explicit in many cases,” she said.

Cable and satellite stations are available in about 85 percent of the US households with televisions. Marvin Johnson is a lawyer for the ACLU, a group that defends civil liberties. He says the FCC would violate free-speech rights if it tried to regulate private cable and satellite stations. He believes the demand for more regulation of television broadcasts comes from a small yet vocal minority of Americans.

“I don't think it is the majority of Americans because if you look at the demographics of the people who watch these TV shows, some of them are very popular," he said. "A lot of people are watching, even though you have some that find them indecent.”

Many Americans support the idea of higher fees for indecent broadcasts on public airwaves but remain skeptical of government regulation of cable and satellite broadcasts. However two key Republican lawmakers recently stated indecent restrictions should be extended to all U.S. broadcast media, a move that current FCC commissioner Kevin Martin, a possible replacement of outgoing chairman Michael Powell, says is a viable alternative.

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