Weary censors worry

FCC rules remain unclear for webs

The producers of an unnamed drama recently sent a script to Fox’s Standards & Practices Dept., who immediately noticed characters were to use the word “crap” three times.

Standards said to cut one “crap.” Producers argued. Discussions ensued. Eventually, Standards yielded. Three “craps” allowed.

“By community standards, that’s pretty benign,” says Nicole Bernard, senior VP for broadcast standards at Fox, who declined to name the show. “But it’s not clear with the FCC.”

Bernard uses the incident as an example of what’s wrong with the FCC’s indecency standards, made all the worse as the feds crack down on all things gratuitous. The guidelines, NBC, CBS and Fox say, are vague and inconsistent, which is why they’re challenging them in court. (ABC was a party to the challenge too, until the FCC reversed a ruling.)

In the meantime, Bernard and her colleagues at the other nets have to settle for trying to read the tea leaves and doing their best to just keep their companies out of trouble.

Another example: The FCC ruled in March that pixilated nudity may not be enough for naked, non-human characters, such as an animated dog.

Bernard’s recommendation: “Put the dog in pants.”

“We’re in a position of having to make decisions where there are very few, if any, clear right or wrong answers,” Bernard says. “What may have been OK just weeks before may not be OK now.”

With a resonant, radio-ready voice and a sharp sense of humor, Bernard belies the stereotype of a standards exec, usually viewed as a suit with no persona. But she’s becoming better known to producers of Fox shows, as standards execs now attend everything except initial pitch meetings. During tape-delayed live broadcasts, Fox’s entertainment division has multiple people working both audio and visual censoring buttons. “Unprecedented,” Bernard says.

“There are people here who have been in this job for 20 or more years,” she says. “They’re used to the ups and downs and the cycles (of indecency regulation), but they say this is the worst they have seen it.”

Because of the uncertainty, the operating principle at Fox has essentially become: When in doubt, take it out.

That makes life with producers and writers — not always easy even on a good day — even tougher.

“It’s difficult enough when standards gives notes to a producer based on standards’ own standards,” says a standards exec at another net. “But when I have to say, ‘Well, you can’t do pixilation because I don’t know if pixilation is going to acceptable because it’s someone else’s standard and we don’t understand it, producers get upset, I sound like an idiot and it makes it harder to do business.”

FCC chairman Kevin Martin has said he believes recent rulings are clear enough indication of what is decent and indecent.

To the networks, the rulings have just created more confusion than clarity. The acrimony between producers and enforcers has become so great that standards execs have become the topic of scripts. NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” included a skit in which Jesus was the head of Standards & Practices.

Chuck Lorre, exec producer of CBS’s hit “Two and a Half Men,” has boasted about telling a standards exec who had cut an oral sex joke, “Your problem is you don’t like oral sex.”

Not necessarily so, a standards exec will tell you. It depends on which kind of oral sex that would be. According to recent FCC rulings, oral sex discussed graphically on “Oprah” is OK, but when it is visually suggested on “Without a Trace” it’s not.

It is perhaps no surprise that Bernard is a bit weary. “To attract trained, skilled people into this job at this time is very difficult.”

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