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US Supreme Court rules against the FCC

TV watchdogs lose in highest court

The FCC is an independent US agency that is responsible for broadcast and television, among others. Their tasks include the distribution of transmission frequencies, checking the compliance with technical norms and also a content control of the American networks (including big channels such as ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX).

Most of the pay TV channels (HBO, Showtime, etc.) regulate themselves and don't need to apologetic about their program towards an outside board of censors. This makes it possible that they can show rude language, sex and violent content in their program while the other networks have to follow strict guidelines that are controlled and enforced by the FCC. Almost 10 years ago, the FCC introduced revised and stricter rules that also incorporated higher fines for offenses. 3 programs were punished by now.

Normally, most of the channels gave in when the FCC took action and imposed a penalty when they got a complaint. However, meanwhile those fines go in the million Dollar region and channels refuted to pay when the FCC demanded the money for programs that aired several years ago (but still fall into the time after the reform was passed). One of those cases found its way with two other incidents (the Billboard Music Awards dating from 2002 and 2003 because of obscene language during acceptance speeches) before the highest US court. The ABC network was sentenced to pay 1.4 million Dollars for airing one episode of the series NYPD Blue back in 2003. The reasoning behind this was:

FCC: ... contains explicit and graphic depictions of sexual organs. The scene depicts multiple, close-range views of an adult woman’s naked buttocks. We find that the broadcast dwells on and repeats the sexual material. We have held that repetition and persistent focus on sexual or excretory material is a relevant factor in evaluating the potential offensiveness of broadcasts. Here, the scene revolves around the woman’s nudity and includes several shots of her naked buttocks. The material is thus dwelled upon and repeated. [...] Our action today should serve as a reminder to all broadcasters that Congress and American families continue to be concerned about protecting children from harmful material and that the FCC will enforce the laws of the land vigilantly.

ABC reacted in their objection: "... the buttocks are not a sexual organ."


This case was brought up in court along with the others and went through the official instances until it finally reached the US Supreme Court which is the highest entity in America. Finally, they reached a verdict. The result: ABC does not have to pay for the episode of NYPD Blue. Also, the two award shows were acquitted of the charges. The reason:

The commission [FCC] failed to give Fox or ABC fair notice prior to the broadcasts in question that fleeting expletives and momentary nudity could be found actionably indecent...

As can be seen in the reasoning, this is no fundamental judgment over the FCC and their often harshly criticised perception of moral decency. The court purposely avoided to take a position in the discussion about free speech (what also includes showing nudity) and the conflict surrounding the FCC. Instead, they justified the acquittal of the networks by stating that the FCC did not inform them on time about the altered rules.

Many critics think that the court acted cowardly because they did not include the FCC with their moral standards and their power to issue extremely high fines into their verdict. In the end, only one technical detail was relevant in 3 cases from years back.

For today's shows, the Supreme Court's verdict has no impact. Still, very strict rules and high fines can be applied if the networks show something that is deemed forbidden. This is not the end of self-censoring such as time delay for live shows or the abandonment of too much nudity.

Release: Jun 27, 2012 - Author: Bob - Translator: Mike Lowrey

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