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US TV networks appeal after $4m FCC indecency clampdown

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It has been a long time coming, but there was always something inevitable about the US broadcasting industry and the way it has been saddled with random and unfathomable indecency fines. It was bound to take the case to a US court eventually.

ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX, together with their affiliate groups and the Hearst-Argyle Television group of stations, have filed appeals in various federal courts challenging the FCC’s indecency standards and put out a statement this week to say so, decrying the record $4m of FCC fines made during the course of last month.

The FCC seems to be trying to turn the clock back and re-impose a morality associated with the world some 50 years ago. But at the same time it won't put a clear set of rules on the process.

On the surface the US administration appears to want to create a global ethos where it is not okay to say a swearword, and not okay to mention sex, but where it is okay to carry a gun and kill people and to invade another country for its oil. But even this is an over simplification of what’s going on here.

One or two commentators, notably the New York Times, have noticed parallels between the TV stations that are receiving fines and those that have not vociferously supported George Bush. The fear is that the FCC fines are being used as a form of party political censorship.

At present there is no distinction between a swear word that just slips out from an interviewee and one that is scripted in a TV series and broadcast before the 9pm watershed, and this, argue the broadcasters, makes it impossible to assess the risks of being fined.

Regardless of where anyone sits politically, the free to air broadcasters are fighting to keep viewers and therefore advertisers, in an increasingly competitive market. Without the latitude to attract viewers on the same basis as pay TV networks, their services and therefore the value of their spectrum are being eaten away. Something the FCC will have to address before the auctions for what is now analog TV spectrum, during 2009. There is a good chance that there will be far less companies bidding for that spectrum if broadcasting goes into decline between now and then, something Faultline. has said is almost certain over the coming years.

There is a slim chance that this is the beginning of a long fight that will ultimately end in the Supreme Court which will establish a new relationship between the broadcasting community and it public, and much of this will hinge on the US First Amendment arguments which say that they should be protected under freedom of speech. The likely result, and the reason that the networks have all agreed to act in concert, is that there may be a clampdown by way of reprisals, and at least this way the FCC will have trouble knowing who to target.

The networks filed their lawsuits in federal appeals courts in Washington and New York and one of these goes all the way back to when General Electric, three years ago was fined by the FCC for the U2 singer Bono saying, "this is f…… brilliant", while accepting a Golden Globe Award. Another case relates to the half-time entertainment at last year’s SuperBowl when Janet Jackson bared her breast.

At present, pay TV doesn’t operate under the same rules as the Free to Air networks, and nor does video sent over the internet. This is because the primary claim to control radio waves comes because the FCC, as all other regulators, treats the radio spectrum as a national asset that it must police, unlike cable and the internet, which are not in place due to a governmental act.

Copyright © 2006, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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