Articles Posted in Indecency

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Caught between a rock and the Second Circuit, the FCC hesitantly took the defense of its indecency policy to the Supreme Court today. The FCC filed a petition seeking the Court’s review of the Second Circuit’s decisions in indecency cases involving Fox and ABC programs. Last year, the Second Circuit found the FCC’s interpretation of indecency to be arbitrary and capricious. On appeal, the Supreme Court disagreed, and lobbed this perennial hot potato back over the net to the Second Circuit for an assessment of the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency policy.

Whether intentional or not, the Supreme Court’s return of the matter to the Second Circuit was the legal equivalent of a high lob, and the Second Circuit enthusiastically slammed the ball back across the net, ruling that the FCC’s current indecency policy is unconstitutionally vague. In light of its earlier ruling, the Second Circuit’s conclusion was hardly a surprise. More curious, however, was the government’s reaction to it. Rather than again storming to the Supreme Court to defend its indecency policy, the FCC first asked the Second Circuit to reconsider its decision (a request that was denied in November 2010), and then sought not one, but two extensions of the deadline for requesting Supreme Court review.

The FCC waited until the end of even that extended period before seeking joint review of the Fox and ABC decisions (the deadline for the Fox decision was today, while the FCC actually had until May 4th to seek review of the ABC decision). In asking that the cases be considered together, the FCC is making the calculation that “scripted nudity” in ABC’s NYPD Blue presents a more compelling case for government regulation than the Fox case, where the agency concluded that fleeting expletives (during the Billboard Music Awards) were a form of actionable indecency despite years of precedent to the contrary. That new interpretation, which the FCC first announced with regard to an NBC broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards, gave everyone (including FCC staff) a case of regulatory whiplash, whereas the FCC’s ongoing, if erratic, feud with broadcast nudity was hardly a surprise (and therefore less controversial).

The government’s hesitance to bring all of this to the Supreme Court’s doorstep a second time is even more curious after reading the petition, which bluntly states that “The court of appeals has effectively suspended the Commission’s ability to fulfill its statutory indecency enforcement responsibilities unless and until the agency can adopt a new policy that surmounts the court of appeals’ vagueness rulings.” The petition then suggests that no functional indecency policy could overcome that hurdle. It is therefore apparent that the FCC’s delay in bringing the challenge (which to be fair, necessarily involves getting the Department of Justice on board) is not the result of any belief that the agency might have been able to “live with” or “work around” the Second Circuit’s ruling by revising its policy. There is clearly something else at work here.

From a legal perspective, the FCC’s petition is well written. However, in reading through it, you can’t avoid the impression that even the FCC is trying to convince itself that the technological and cultural shifts of the last decade or two have not rendered the notion of government second-guessing broadcast content an anachronism. In particular, it is hard to escape the irony of the FCC seeking to bring high speed Internet into every home by reallocating broadcast spectrum based on the argument that only 10% of Americans are viewing over-the-air television. If true, then the government is expending a lot of effort to control what that 10% sees on their televisions, while racing to use those airwaves to bring these same households the wonders of the Internet–including all of that content that they aren’t allowed to see on their TV’s.

The convergence of distribution technologies is upon us, and whether that claimed 10% of households uses their TV’s V-Chip, or an Internet software filter on their computer, to prevent unwelcome content from entering their home, the result is hardly different. The FCC’s sudden shyness in defending its indecency policy suggests that it is concerned that the Supreme Court may note that incongruity as well.

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Earlier this month we posted our 2011 Broadcasters Calendar on CommLawCenter as well as on our Pillsbury web page. We have been annually publishing the Broadcasters Calendar, which contains much information regarding broadcast station deadlines and legal requirements, for as long as I can recall. It has always been one of our most popular publications, and I usually get calls beginning in early November asking when next year’s calendar will be available. The “easy to read” pdf version of the Calendar can be found here, and a text-searchable version is available here.

Even a brief review of the 2011 Broadcasters Calendar reminds us that 2011 will be a busy year for not just broadcasters, but for cable and satellite operators as well. October 1, 2011 is the deadline by which broadcasters qualifying for must-carry need to notify cable and satellite operators of their election between must-carry status and retransmission consent. Recent retransmission disputes once again remind us that retransmission negotiations and their associated revenue are critical to the future of broadcast television. However, the sheer volume of negotiations and carriage disputes likely to occur following the October 1 election deadline will almost certainly make this holiday season look tranquil by comparison.

Adding to the action will be continued efforts by the cable and satellite industries to draw Congress and the FCC into the fray, introducing legislative and regulatory uncertainties into an already complex negotiation process. Their chances for success will depend greatly upon how much disruption in carriage of broadcast programming occurs in 2011, and the public’s perception of who is at fault for that disruption. Regardless of the outcome of this particular Washington confrontation, look for 2011 to be the year where economics force cable and satellite providers to more tightly link the number of viewers a program service attracts with the amount they agree to pay for that service. Overpaying for niche cable networks that don’t pull in large numbers of viewers is so “last decade”.

2011 also marks the beginning of the FCC’s next eight-year license renewal cycle, with radio stations in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia starting pre-filing announcements in April for their upcoming license renewal applications. The filing cycle will continue state by state until it concludes with television stations in Delaware and Pennsylvania running their last post-filing announcements on June 16, 2015.

However, many stations haven’t had their last license renewal application granted because of indecency complaints still pending against them. The FCC has pretty much ceased processing indecency complaints while it awaits guidance from the courts as to whether it can legally enforce the prohibition on broadcast indecency, and if so, how it will be allowed to do that. I have been told that there are literally hundreds of thousands of indecency complaints now pending at the FCC, so unless the courts do the FCC the favor of finding the prohibition on indecency completely unconstitutional, it will take the FCC years to sift through these complaints in an effort to apply any refined indecency standard announced by the Supreme Court.

It is therefore reasonable to predict that indecency complaints will continue to play a large role in the processing of upcoming license renewal applications. 2011 will hopefully be the year when the courts tell us exactly how large (or small) that role will be. If the prohibition on indecency survives this latest round of judicial scrutiny, broadcasters and the FCC can expect a lot of complaint investigations and litigation as both struggle with where the line on content is being drawn.

Of course there are numerous other events that will contribute to 2011 being one of the busiest years in memory for broadcasters. A rebounding economy is slowly lifting most boats in the broadcast industry, with the obvious exception being those that burned their critical assets for fuel during the lean times, and don’t have much boat left.

With a growing amount of money to fight over, the fights will begin in earnest (see “Retrans” above). Negotiations between the NAB and the recording industry over performance royalties will continue, and “performance tax” legislation will again rise in Congress with the same certainty that the slasher in a horror film returns for unending sequels.

Broadcasters and the FCC will also be implementing the latest generation of the Emergency Alert System in 2011, and the FCC will continue its efforts to repurpose broadcast spectrum for mobile broadband use, leading to new rules permitting multiple broadcasters to share a single channel, and potentially to legislation allowing participating broadcasters to share in the proceeds of broadband spectrum auctions. As with most of the items discussed above, there is both opportunity and peril for broadcasters here, and those that are inattentive risk missing the former and being battered by the latter.

Yes, 2011 will be a very busy year.

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In light of today’s decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit invalidating the FCC’s indecency policy, it would be hard to justify writing about anything else. From my first days as a young lawyer screening programs before they were aired (I still remember assessing the legalities of airing a live satellite feed of “Carnaval” from Rio) to defending stations accused of airing indecent programming in FCC enforcement actions, the FCC’s indecency policy has been an ever-present, ever-broadening part of the practice. While the definition of indecency has remained largely constant (“language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities”), its interpretation has always been a moving target.

When the Supreme Court originally found that requiring indecent content to be channeled into late-night hours was constitutional, it did so based upon a narrow view of what qualified as indecent content (basically George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” routine) and the assurance of the FCC that restrained enforcement would protect First Amendment concerns. Over the next twenty years or so, broadcasters programmed accordingly, and with a few exceptions, broadcasters and the FCC learned to coexist on the issue of indecency.

However, the rise of cable television placed immense pressure on both television and radio broadcasters to more precisely map the boundary between “decent” and “indecent” content. While most broadcasters remained determined to stay on the “decent” side of that line, they could no longer afford to remain at such a safe distance from that line as to be deemed “fogey programming” by a generation of consumers that did not distinguish between broadcast programming and cable programming. To these viewers, all channels are equal, and whether programming arrives by cable, satellite, or antenna is beside the point. To reach this audience, many programmers struggled mightily to make their programming more edgy and relevant to young adults. This programming stayed clear of Carlin’s seven dirty words, and focused more on situation and entendre to engage its audience.

In response, the FCC stepped onto a slippery slope, seeking to broaden its interpretation of indecency by expanding its view of what constitutes “patently offensive” material. The FCC was not prepared for the mission it undertook. What at first appeared to be a slippery slope of line drawing quickly became a well-greased plunge into the abyss of eternal peril. Those filing complaints at the FCC often urged the agency, as a practical matter, to forget that indecency must be patently offensive and instead sought action against content that was merely offensive to the complainant. The result has been a gut-wrenching high speed slalom down the slippery slope, resulting in the FCC’s headfirst encounter today with the large oak doors of the Second Circuit’s courtroom.

Although the court based today’s ruling on a finding that the FCC’s interpretation of indecency is impermissibly vague, and therefore chilling of protected speech, the problem actually goes far deeper than that. Some of the greatest damage to free speech has resulted from complaints where just about everyone, including the FCC, would agree that indecency is not present. While baseless complaints were once met with a prompt and pleasant FCC letter notifying the complainant that the subject of their complaint was categorically not indecent, the FCC in later years treated every complaint even mentioning the word “indecency” as a reason to put a hold on that station’s license renewal or sale application for literally years until the FCC could investigate the complaint. In the meantime, these stations struggled, as a delayed license renewal made obtaining financing difficult, and a delayed sale often meant that the contract to sell the station expired before the FCC could resolve the indecency complaint and approve the sale. Under these circumstances, it is pretty easy to see how a station would be hesitant to say anything offensive to anyone, even without the potential for a $325,000 indecency fine.

Among the “indecency” complaints I have encountered that were holding up a station’s applications at the FCC was a complaint from a politician who didn’t like what a station said about him (apparently using the word “indecent” in his complaint got it put into the indecency pile), and a complaint that a Spanish word yelled at soccer matches when a goal is scored sounds too much like a bad word in English. When such complaints are allowed to languish or become the basis of a pointless inquiry, they interfere with the operations of a station, serve to chill future speech, and create a “bunker mentality” among broadcasters that anything they say will be held against them.

So where does this leave us? Well, as a pragmatic matter, the court’s ruling will not become effective until it issues its mandate, and the FCC may ask that the court delay taking that action while the FCC seeks a rehearing en banc or review by the Supreme Court. If the court’s ruling does become effective, it will apply only within the jurisdiction of the Second Circuit (which includes Connecticut, New York and Vermont). Both legally and politically, the FCC will feel compelled to pursue an appeal, and the result of that effort will determine the future of its indecency enforcement efforts across the US.

That places the FCC in a very high stakes game of poker. Does it place an ever larger bet on trying to defend its existing policy? If it does, it runs the risk that the Supreme Court will rule that the very notion of indecency enforcement is unconstitutional in light of a changing media landscape and the FCC’s seeming inability to apply a narrow and restrained enforcement policy. Or, does it fold this hand and return to the table later with a “back to basics” indecency policy similar to what was once found constitutional by the Supreme Court? One thing’s for certain–for the first time in a long time, broadcasters are holding all the right cards in this game.

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If you are a Fox affiliate, your fax machine (if you still have one) probably has a message on it from the FCC waiting for you, courtesy of the latest struggle between Fox and the FCC over indecency enforcement. In a Notice of Apparent Liability released today, the FCC states it received over 100,000 complaints about a January 3, 2010 episode of American Dad aired on the Fox Television Network. Although the NAL doesn’t discuss the allegedly indecent content, it appears all of the complaints relate to a single segment of the episode which brings to mind that old college query, “if Jack helped you off the horse…” (if you missed that part of college, don’t worry, you didn’t miss much).

While the FCC’s enthusiasm for enforcing its indecency restrictions has waxed and waned over the years, what has usually been constant is the relatively slow path from complaint, to investigation, to resolution. It has not been uncommon for years to pass between these steps, which makes the sequence of events leading up to this NAL all the more interesting. In this case, the FCC sent a letter of inquiry to Fox just 18 days after the episode aired. The letter attached a single redacted complaint that the FCC indicates was “representative of the complaints received by the Commission,” and asked Fox, among other things, whether the description in the complaint of the allegedly indecent content was accurate, which Fox-owned stations aired it, and which Fox Television Network affiliates had the contractual right to air it.

According to the NAL, when the response to the letter arrived at the FCC, it was not from Fox, but from the single Fox affiliate named in the “representative” complaint. As a result, the response didn’t address a number of the FCC’s questions, including the request for a list of Fox affiliates that likely aired the program. To no one’s surprise, the FCC was not pleased. The NAL indicates that the FCC followed up with another letter on March 19, 2010 (note once again the lightning pace, with the FCC’s follow-up letter going out just 18 days after the affiliate’s response was filed). The FCC summarizes that letter as “describing [Fox’s] failure to respond to the LOI and requiring a full and complete response to all the Bureau’s inquiries no later than March 23, 2010,” just four days after the FCC letter was issued.

The NAL indicates that Fox didn’t respond to that letter, which also obviously did not please the FCC. In response, the FCC issued the NAL, which proposes a $25,000 fine against Fox for failure to respond to an FCC inquiry. The NAL notes that the base fine for such an infraction is $4,000, but that a “significant increase” in the fine is appropriate because “misconduct of this type exhibits contempt for the Commission’s authority and threatens to compromise the Commission’s ability to adequately investigate violations of its rules.”

Suspecting, perhaps, that a $25,000 fine would not overly concern an operation the size of Fox, the FCC proceeded to the nuclear option: “Given the continued absence of a response from Fox and the incomplete response received from [the affiliate], contemporaneously with the release of this NAL, the Bureau is sending letters of inquiry to all licensees that air Fox Television Network programming.” The NAL later notes that letters of inquiry are being sent to 235 Fox owned or affiliated stations. The FCC is obviously counting on Fox receiving a firestorm of protests from its affiliates, who now have 30 days to respond to the individual letters of inquiry, which include a request for copies of any complaints about the episode received by the stations themselves. The letters of inquiry are going out today by certified mail, but it appears that the FCC has already faxed the letters to many Fox-affiliated stations.

Both the speed and severity of the FCC’s response indicate a desire to send a very clear message to licensees that there is a new sheriff in town, and not a very patient one at that. This NAL adds an exclamation point to my missive last week about the FCC stepping up its enforcement sanctions to ensure that licensees don’t view them merely as a cost of doing business. Fox affiliates are about to be caught in the crossfire of the next skirmish in the indecency battle between the FCC and Fox, and they are doubtless not too pleased about it.

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Court Ordered Remand May Force the Supreme Court to deal with the First Amendment Issue

In a 5-4 decision released today, the Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s so-called “fleeting expletives” policy which bans the radio and television broadcast of single so-called four-letter words that are considered indecent.

However, the narrow ruling of the Court stopped short of deciding whether the FCC’s change in policy violates the First Amendment. Justice Scalia’s majority opinion emphasized that it was dealing only with the question of whether the FCC’s new fleeting expletives policy was “arbitrary and capricious” as a matter of law. The majority determined that the FCC’s change in policy was “entirely rational” under the Administrative Procedure Act. In doing so, the Court reversed the decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that had found the FCC’s new policy to be arbitrary and capricious and remanded the case to the Second Circuit for further review.

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November 2006
In an effort to reduce the risk of reversal by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the FCC successfully persuaded the Court to allow it to pull back and review four indecency decisions. Earlier this week, the FCC announced the outcome of that review. The “F-word” is still very problematic. A five-second delay mechanism may not be enough to establish a legal defense. There is a tip-of-the-hat toward the First Amendment in the context of news programs but only that. And the procedural hurdle that the FCC has thrown up against blanket indecency complaints is probably only a temporary setback for national organizations intent upon “cleaning up the airwaves.”

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By Kathryn R. Schmeltzer and Jarrett S. Taubman
November 2006
Sample questions include:

  • What is the source of the Commission’s authority to limit “obscene,” “indecent,” and “profane” program material?
  • What FCC regulations prohibit “obscene” or “indecent” program material?
  • What Commission regulations prohibit “profane” program material?
  • What about the First Amendment?
  • Why aren’t cable and satellite subject to the same regulations?

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By Kathryn R. Schmeltzer, Clifford M. Harrington and Richard R. Zaragoza

September 2006
FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology Announces Schedule for Proceeding on Unlicensed Operation in the TV Broadcast Bands

As we reported earlier, on March 6, 2006, the FCC released an Order in Complaints Regarding Various Television Broadcasts Between February 2, 2002 and March 8, 2005, Notices of Apparent Liability and Memorandum Opinion and Order, FCC 06-17 (the “Omnibus Order”). After the release of the Order, Fox Television Stations, Inc. and CBS Broadcasting, Inc. filed a joint petition for review in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the ABC Television Network and Hearst-Argyle Television, Inc. filed a joint petition for review in the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit which transferred the petition to the Second Circuit. The Second Circuit consolidated the petitions on June 14, 2006.

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