Government tells broadcasters ways to stay within the law
Saturday, April 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Broadcasters uncertain about what type of programming they should keep off the airwaves can turn to new government guidelines on indecency.
The Federal Communications Commission laid out some of the factors it considers when determining whether a broadcast is indecent. How graphic the material is and whether it is repeated can play into the decision, the agency said Friday.
Indecent speech is protected by the First Amendment and can be regulated only with some restrictions. As a result, the ban on indecent broadcasts applies only between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., times when children are more likely to be listening or watching.
The FCC does not monitor the airwaves for indecency. It does, however, look into complaints from the public about television or radio content. If the commission decides that a station is airing indecent material, it can revoke the station's license, impose a fine or issue a warning.
For the FCC to act, the broadcast must fall within the agency's definition of indecency: The programming must describe or depict sexual or excretory organs or activities and the broadcast must be patently offensive to an average viewer or listener.
The commission's efforts to clarify the standard stem from its 1994 court settlement with a broadcast company that challenged the FCC's decision to impose a fine for indecency.
In its new guidelines, the FCC laid out factors that might make a broadcast more likely to be considered patently offensive. They include:
_The explicitness or graphic nature of the broadcast. Whether the offensive material is audible and can be understood plays a role in this determination. But the commission noted that less-explicit programming, such as broadcasts that use sexual innuendo or double-entendres, can be indecent when the meaning is unmistakable.
_Whether the station dwells on or repeats the indecent material. A fleeting reference is less likely to bring an action of indecency than continued focus on offensive material.
_Whether the programming appears to pander or titillate or to have been presented for shock value.
The FCC included a number of cases to illustrate its points. It fined a San Diego station for a song about candy bars. While using double meanings, the song was ``clearly capable of a sexually specific meaning,'' the agency said.
As another example, a segment of Oprah Winfrey's TV show on how to improve romantic relations was dismissed as not indecent.
The case comparisons and guidelines are intended to help broadcasters stay within the limits of the law. They also are directed at viewers and listeners who want to file complaints.
The National Association of Broadcasters was reviewing the policy statement _ nearly 20 pages long _ and did not have an immediate comment, spokesman Dennis Wharton said.
But FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani, who frequently scolds the commission for dismissing indecency complaints without investigation, said the guidelines are unnecessary and could become a ``how-to manual for those licensees who wish to tread the line drawn by our cases.''
``It would better serve the public if the FCC got serious about enforcing the broadcast indecency standards,'' she said.
Commissioner Susan Ness suggested the agency streamline its complaint process and urged the broadcasting industry to clean up its programming.
``It is not a violation of the First Amendment for broadcasters on their own to take responsibility for the programming they air and to exercise that power in a manner that celebrates rather than debases humankind,'' she said.