How does the FCC police obscenity?

The Obscenity Debate

This is an area that communication companies would like cleared up. Clear Channel -- owner and programmer of more than 1,000 commercial radio stations -- has asked the FCC to assemble a "Decency Task Force" that would create specific guidelines that broadcasting companies could use to navigate the tricky lines of decency. Until such guidelines are produced, broadcasting companies are forced to regulate themselves.

In the case of Clear Channel, this self-regulation has come in the form of their "Responsible Broadcasting Initiative." The company has instituted several programs under this banner, including a zero-tolerance policy for indecent and obscene content, decency-training initiatives, and automatic suspensions with investigations for any employee drawing FCC attention for on-air indecency violations. This directive cost famed shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge his job. Bubba and the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" Howard Stern both moved to Sirius satellite radio. Currently the FCC does not have jurisdiction over satellite radio program content.

Clear Channel's reaction to FCC pressure has left many people wondering if the grey area surrounding the definition of indecency has given the FCC a "blank check" to wield pressure on the broadcast industry. Another concern is the FCC's own apparent inconsistency. When U2 front man Bono said "This is really, really, f---ing brilliant" at the Golden Globe Awards in 2003, shocked viewers complained to the FCC about the profane word being broadcast on primetime TV. The FCC's Enforcement Bureau Chief David Solomon responded by explaining, "The performer used the word... as an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation." According to the FCC, this was not a violation because the statement "did not describe sexual or excretory organs or activities" [ref]. Many outraged viewers disagreed. And, now, apparently so does the FCC.

In March of 2004, the FCC overturned its previous decision and now asserts that the "f-word" is verboten on public airways. (Oh, and if you're wondering, no fine was imposed on Bono.)