It's a case of bad words, the people who use them, and whether broadcasting them should be punished with a hefty fine.
When Cher took the stage at a music awards show in 2002, she looked out at the audience—and into the cameras—and said of critics who insisted her career was over: "F--- 'em." Parents scrambled to cover their kids' ears the next year, too, when Nicole Richie and Bono also used the "F" word during awards shows. But it wasn't until Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl that the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates TV and radio communications, leapt into action. CBS, which broadcast the game, was fined $550,000. In a flurry of rulings over the next two years, the FCC issued fines for indecency against dozens of shows, from Without a Trace, a cop show that depicted what the agency called a teenage "sexual orgy," to a PBS documentary on blues musicians with a penchant for the "F" word. The crackdown also included retroactive rulings against Bono and his fellow celebrity F-bombers, finding them indecent and profane.
In April 2006, the four TV networks filed suit, saying the agency's fines for the broadcast of "fleeting expletives," in particular—one-time uses of profane words in live broadcasts—went beyond what the law allowed. Last summer, a federal appeals court agreed with them. And this week, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear arguments on the case, the first time it has taken on the issue of broadcast indecency in 30 years.
U.S. News spoke with Robin Bronk, executive director of the Creative Coalition, an advocacy group for the entertainment industry, about what Hollywood is hoping for, what it considers indecent—and how much swearing should be on TV. Excerpts:
There seems to be a lot of confusion about what kind of language is allowed on network television. For starters, what is a "fleeting expletive"?
As I understand it, it's an expletive that's not part of a script.
So this case isn't dealing with swearing on TV, generally, only with the kind of one-off swearing that occurs during live shows?
And what are the networks fighting for here, the right to broadcast the F-word whenever someone slips one through the bleeps?
This is about the protection of free speech and creative voices. We have an amendment to our Constitution that protects free speech, and it prevents the government from controlling what creative medium we're allowed to watch in our own homes. People might say, well, the government tells you to wear a seat belt and a bike helmet, why can't they tell me what I can watch? But there's a difference: Creative speech is protected by the First Amendment.
But what will the entertainment industry's argument be before the court this fall—that swearing isn't so bad?
We all care about family morals and values. We may not agree on what they are, but we all care, and we all care about children. No one's throwing children under the morality bus. What we need to talk about is what's the best way to ensure that our kids are media literate. This is the first generation of kids that has infinite access to television stations, to the Internet. We really haven't formally said these kids need to be literate in these mediums. When Gutenberg printed the first book, we made sure our children knew how to read. Now, they need to know how to read the Internet, they need to know what a product placement is, what a tabloid is, what true journalism is. And they don't. Many adults don't, either. If the government's going to get involved, let the government get involved to mandate that.
The last time the Supreme Court decided a broadcast indecency case was in 1978, when it said the FCC could police "patently offensive" material on TV, since it was such an intrusive medium. That's still true, isn't it? It's broadcast into your house. You can't avoid it.
You know, we don't just have three television channels anymore. We have hundreds and hundreds of radio stations. I think President Bush actually said it beautifully when he said, there's an "off" button. Use it. Use it judiciously.
Did you watch Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl?
Yeah, and you know it made me really angry. That was stupid by Janet Jackson. But fining CBS just doesn't make sense. Things are going to happen—the drama, the excitement of live TV, it can influence for the good and influence for the bad. I think football's pretty violent, but that day I called my kids [who were 6, 8, and 11 at the time] in to watch the halftime show. Was I pissed off? Yeah. But I'm not going to throw out the creative genius of television altogether. I'm an educated parent, I'm going to explain to my kids, "No, this is not appropriate." I want to take some responsibility for my family. Don't take that right away from me.