Friday, February 17, 2012

[Expletive Deleted]: FCC vs. Fox TV

For my final paper, I want to investigate the regulatory issues surrounding the FCC's attempts to regulate so-called fleeting profanity on television. Fleeting profanity means unscripted profanity, usually in the context of a live event. People as notable as Joe Biden have had fleeting profanity picked up on a mic and broadcast on national television.This has been a controversial issue, due to the difficulty of monitoring the speech of everyone who might swear during a live TV event. Even if the station can afford to insert a delay and have someone ready to censor expletives (something which is by no means guaranteed: consider, for example, local or even public access stations), some have argued that a chilling effect takes place. It is is unclear exactly what might arouse the FCC's ire (there is debate, for example, as to whether "the f-word" always describes a sex act, or always has sexual connotations), which some have argued puts too heavy a burden on individuals to self-censor, and may lead them to self-censor comments which are not actually objectionable. It is also questionable whether fines actually have a deterrent effect, since the profanity is unscripted and usually said on the spur of the moment.

This issue is highly relevant this year, because it is expected to go before the Supreme Court in the case of Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations. A case of the same name was heard in 2009, in which the Court decided that bans on fleeting expletives were not "arbitrary and capricious" under the Administrative Procedures Act, the act which describes how federal regulatory agencies are to operate. However, the Court did not decide on the constitutionality of the issue, instead referring it back to lower courts. In 2010, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ban on fleeting profanity was indeed unconstitutional, and now the matter is being referred back to the Supreme Court.

This will be an interesting issue to watch, since it will directly affect the relationship between the FCC and TV stations, and perhaps reflects a changing attitude in America about profanity in general. However, I don't think the ruling, no matter which way it goes, will affect the amount of profanity you see on live broadcasts, since I doubt that the people who are using fleeting expletives are A) often aware that their mic is on, or B) would stop to consider whether or not an FCC fine might be levied against them.

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  1. Andrew, I think this is a great topic and one that is immediate and pertinent for the current state of media. However, I think it would be interesting for you to look into how the regulation of swear words has changed on television. Obviously our ratings haven't changed but there has been a certain amount of change in what is acceptable and what isn't according to content ratings. I remember the first time I heard the word "shit" in a PG movie and was confused as to why it wasn't PG-13 for that reason. What really is a "bad word" and what is inherently "bad" about it should be established to set up your stance on what is being regulated today. I think this is great and it will be a fun topic for you!

  2. This is such a cool topic! I think that there will be a good mix of both academic as well as news sources for this research. In addition to Emaline's comment, it would be interesting to see what the FCC has to say about profanity that isn't fleeting--like the complaints that some broadcast television shows receive (Hell's Kitchen comes to mind) because "bleeping" curse words does not necessarily negate the profanity. Even though the show isn't scripted, it isn't live. I'm really interested to see where you take this!