CBS, helmer blast FCC fines

Eye, Scorsese call fines a power grab

CBS has accused the Federal Communications Commission’s indecency cops of making an unprecedented and unjustified power grab in levying record fines for an episode of “Without a Trace.”

Left unchallenged, the recent “Without a Trace” ruling could establish the FCC as essentially a governmental story editor, CBS implied.

Helmer Martin Scorsese also weighed in to defend his doc on blues music, which contained profanities that the FCC decided were unnecessary. Joining an opposition filed Friday by KCSM-TV in San Mateo, Calif., which the agency fined for airing the doc, Scorsese wrote, “The language in the film was an essential element of the story and … was integral to portraying the people and subject matter in a historically accurate way.

“The language of blues musicians often was filled with expletives that shocked and challenged America’s white-dominated society of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” Scorsese said. “To accurately capture the essential character of the blues music and subculture in which it originated and flourished, it was important to preserve … the actual speech and discursive formations of the participants, including their use of terms like ‘fuck’ and ‘shit.’ … To delete or mask the speech of those so intimately involved in the blues scene would ruin the cadence and rhythm of the language and give a false view of these participants and their vernacular.”

On the same day last month when the four major nets jointly took the FCC to court over three other indecency rulings, CBS separately filed an opposition with the agency over its “Without a Trace” decision, which slapped more than 100 stations with a total $3.35 million fine.

The episode included two brief scenes suggesting a teen sex party, which the commission said was “unnecessary” to the story. CBS argued that this is a new assertion of authority that constitutes a “deep intrusion into the editorial process,” according to the filing.

For the FCC to decide what is or isn’t necessary to a storyline “places the government at the heart of the editorial process, a role the commission previously avoided. This is a sharp break from the past,” filing said. The papers then quote a 1970 FCC ruling that “there can be no governmental arbiter of taste in the broadcast field.” Subsequent FCC actions hewed to that line.

In a press conference following the release of the omnibus package of indecency rulings in March, FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin affirmed a de facto editorial authority, saying that, in addition to evaluating other factors, “We look at how integral the (material is), how easy it could’ve been to have the same effect without using (that material)” (Daily Variety, March 20).

“Such content and viewpoint-based judgments are beyond both the competence and constitutional powers of the commission,” the opposition papers said. The fines “suggest that the commission has embraced the role of ‘super editor’ for the nation’s broadcasters.”

“Even at the zenith of its powers touching on broadcast content,” the papers continued, “the FCC never inserted itself this far into broadcasters’ editorial discretion.”

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