TV scenes off the indecency hook

FCC dismisses complaints against TV segs

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission has dismissed 36 complaints of indecency against a variety of television programs that aired between Oct. 29, 2001, and Feb. 11, 2004.

All complaints were originally filed by the Parents Television Council, a conservative group that has often been critical of broadcast content.

For each instance, the council provided transcripts of scenes it alleged contained material that violated federal rules against broadcast indecency. The council urged the FCC to issue fines against the broadcasters, which included Fox, NBC and ABC.

But in its memorandum of opinion and order released Monday, the agency stated, “After reviewing the material provided by PTC, we conclude that the complained of material is not patently offensive pursuant to contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium and is therefore not indecent.”

‘Patently offensive’

The FCC’s definition of “patently offensive” includes material graphically or explicitly depicting or describing sexual organs or activities; material dwelling on or repeating depictions or descriptions of sexual organs or activities; and material designed to pander, titillate or shock. The material must also air between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are likely to be watching.

Some of the scenes the council complained about involved an episode of “Boston Public,” in which a teacher referred to a student three times as “a dick.”

Another complaint was that in “Night of Too Many Stars,” comedian Dana Carvey appeared as his “Saturday Night Live” character Church Lady, asking actor Macaulay Culkin about spending the night with Michael Jackson: “Did he ever dangle anything in front of you at the sleepovers? … Say, his happy man-loaf?”

In an episode of “Friends,” a recent mother mistakenly receives a cake shaped like a penis instead of a normal birthday cake for her child. Opening the box, she exclaims, “Ahh! They put my baby’s face on a penis!”

In the commission’s view, none of the material the council submitted rose to the level of indecency. For example, referring to the utterances of “dick,” the commission said in its memorandum:

“In context and as used in the complained of broadcasts, these were epithets intended to denigrate or were a play on words. Their use in these contexts was not sufficiently explicit or graphic and/or sustained to be patently offensive.

“Similarly, we find (in other complaints) that fleeting uses of the words ‘hell,’ ‘damn,’ ‘orgasm,’ ‘penis,’ ‘testicles,’ ‘breast,’ ‘nipples,’ ‘can,’ ‘pissed,’ ‘crap,’ ‘bastard’ and ‘bitch,’ uttered in the context of the programs cited in a number of complaints, are not profane and do not represent graphic descriptions of sexual or excretory organs or activities such that the material is rendered patently offensive by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.”

Majority rules

Chairman Michael Powell and commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Jonathan Adelstein — two Republicans and a Democrat, respectively — formed the majority for the ruling. Concurring in part but also dissenting were commissioners Michael Copps (Democrat) and Kevin Martin (Republican).

Copps criticized the agency’s ruling, saying, “The commission combines 36 unrelated complaints with no apparent rhyme or reason other than that they concern television broadcasts. The commission then denies these complaints with hardly any analysis of each individual broadcast, relying instead on generalized pronouncements that none of these broadcasts violates the statutory prohibition against indecency on the airwaves.”

“This ruling is just another example of Powell’s poor leadership on the indecency issue,” said Lara Mahaney, a spokeswoman for the Parents Television Council. “I don’t know of any schools or parents who would allow words like ‘dick’ and ‘dickhead’ as acceptable forms of communication. It’s just absurd.”