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Should FCC take words out of their mouths?

Cher said it. Bono said it. Nicole Richie from The Simple Life said it. And now the Feds are looking to rein in the networks responsible for letting the F-word out into the public airwaves.

After a year of fast-falling taboos on network television, in which everything from nude corpses to sibling sex has been met mostly with resignation, it looks like one word has pushed Washington lawmakers and bureaucrats into action.

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The trigger was last year's Golden Globes broadcast, in which U2 rocker Bono said, "This is really, really, [expletive] brilliant," using the F-word. Broadcasters have a seven-second delay in which to bleep out offensive language, but because NBC let it go, the Federal Communications Commission considered imposing its usual penalty, a fine.

Yet in October, the FCC's Enforcement Bureau let NBC off the hook, because Bono had not used the word as a verb, and outraged citizens showered Washington with e-mails. Individual members of Congress received thousands, and the FCC itself more than 100,000, said Ken Johnson, spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC.

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Now, the committee has scheduled a hearing Wednesday -- titled "Can You Say That on TV?" -- to examine how the commission enforces indecency laws. FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell has asked fellow commissioners to overturn the Enforcement Bureau's decision on the NBC-Bono incident. He also has asked Congress to support a bill, scheduled to be introduced Wednesday, that would increase penalties tenfold for indecent programming. The current cap for a single fine is $27,500.

"Passions are running very high right now," Johnson says. "Many members of Congress believe that broadcasters have crossed the line." While the FCC is expected to reverse the NBC ruling, the hearing is likely to re-ignite the cultural wars between First Amendment advocates and parents' groups.

TV is catching up

Breaking taboos is a universal cultural phenomenon that has gathered unprecedented speed in the age of pay cable and satellite television. "Everyone knows you couldn't say 'pregnant' in 1952," says Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

Throughout the tumultuous social changes in the '60s, television remained focused on limiting language and content, he said, resulting in shows that were out of step with the times. "Now, you're seeing this catch-up, and it seems to be happening really fast, because nothing happened for 50 years."

To some, this trend reached the far limit last fall with Coupling, a comedy whose nonstop innuendo included a man excited by the way his girlfriend groomed herself, and Skin, a drama featuring a porn-king dad. Both were quickly canceled, although that was widely attributed to quality, not content.

Network television, which operates under standards enforced by the FCC, is considered the last bastion of propriety, trailing behind basic and premium cable services, which do not. But networks, beset with what TV Guide editor in chief Michael Lafavore calls "HBO envy," have tended to move in on the ground broken by cable.

"There really aren't any taboos anymore," says Joe Saltzman, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. "There's taste and decorum. When they watch MTV and see two women kissing, it doesn't mean anything to kids. Maybe it's a shock to older people who are still under the impression there are taboos in society."

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To viewers who have 100 channels at home, it makes no sense to have separate standards, he says. "It's absurd when you can go to [cable] television and watch adult programming, then turn to NBC, CBS and ABC, and they're still arguing over words and phrases."

A mirror or a line?

Some of the most active critics of the state of the medium are members of the Parents Television Council, who say they are trying to stem the violent, nearly pornographic and gruesome, desensitizing material heading for their homes. Typically, sex and violence top the list of members' concerns, says Tim Winter, executive director of the organization, which tracks instances of sex, foul language and violence on television and targets campaigns to Hollywood, Capitol Hill, the FCC and advertisers.

Winter says he was overwhelmed last year by the response to a Parents Television Council study showing a 95 percent increase in foul language from 1998 to 2002 during the so-called family hour in prime time. Winter objects to Hollywood's typical argument -- that it holds a mirror to society. "There has to be a line you draw and say, 'This far and no further,' " he says.

That line has been debated since 1973, when a radio station broadcast comic George Carlin's famous "seven dirty words" routine in mid-afternoon. Five years later, the Supreme Court gave the FCC the power to censor language and content on radio and television in response to complaints from the public. But over the past decade, the commission has imposed no hard and fast rules on specific words.

The FCC divides offensive content into two areas: obscene and indecent. To be obscene, material has to appeal to prurient interests in a way that exceeds "contemporary community standards," depicts sex in a "patently offensive way" and "lacks serious artistic, political, literary or scientific value."

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"Indecent" is defined as "sexual or excretory references that do not rise to the level of obscenity."

In 2002, the FCC ruled that some specific words could escape sanction if they were uttered as an insult or in anger. In letting NBC off the hook, the FCC reasoned that Bono had used the word in an exclamatory fashion, and since it did not literally describe sexual or excretory activities, it was outside the commission's purview.

According to Newton Minow, former FCC chairman, the fact that just about anything goes stems partly from the panel "walking away from the issues."

"It's a combination of our own government's fault, industry's fault and technological change," he says.

Safeguards often ineffective

If the FCC's efforts have tended to ebb and flow with the political tide, they seem to have misjudged the effect the F-word still has on the public.

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"I find it peculiar the FCC would make a ruling based on grammar," says Pamela Munro, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "In my opinion, people will find it offensive in any use."

The idea of protecting children from obscene and indecent programming, although laudable and necessary, hasn't really been thought through, Thompson says. Many safeguards have proved ineffective.

Take the idea of "family hour." "The problem is, the entire middle of the country, a 10 o'clock show starts at 9 -- in California at 8 -- when many kids are still up," he says, adding, "one could argue the biggest taboos broken are on tabloid talk shows that kids watch when they come home from school and have a snack."

Also missing the mark is a 1997 TV ratings system -- parental guidelines similar to the ones used by the movie industry but linked to a V-chip technology to block unwanted programs. Many parents have reported having trouble figuring it out. Last year, TV Guide dropped the ratings from its listings after a 12-week test showed that only eight of 160,000 test participants noticed or cared.

Ironically, perhaps, one result of the crossed boundaries has been a raising of the aesthetics bar of TV. "The irony is that the shows are filled with this taboo stuff, but it's also some of the best TV we've made in this country," Thompson says. "It's something the networks have to respond to."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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