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FCC Dismisses 36 Indecency Complaints as Not 'Patently Offensive'

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; Page E01

It's generally okay to use a common nickname for "Richard" as an insult on network television, the Federal Communications Commission ruled yesterday, in a denial of several indecency complaints brought to the agency.

The complaints covered 25 television shows and a movie broadcast between 2001 and 2004 and were brought by the Parents Television Council, the Los Angeles media watchdog responsible for flooding the FCC with hundreds of thousands of e-mailed indecency complaints in 2004.

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Last year, under pressure from the public and lawmakers, the FCC cracked down on indecency, proposing nearly $8 million in fines against radio and television programs. Congress crafted legislation allowing the agency to raise indecency fines from a maximum of $32,500 to as high as $500,000.

But the agency also denied a number of complaints, ruling that -- even though they include material that may be tasteless to many -- they do not meet the agency's regulations of being "patently offensive" while including sexual or excretory language or images.

In 2003, the FCC's enforcement division ruled it was not indecent when Bono, the frontman for rock group U2, uttered an expletive during a live NBC awards show. The five-member FCC commission later reversed the decision and ruled it indecent. Yesterday's denials were voted on by the commission, tacitly approving use of the nickname as an insult. Critics charge that the FCC arbitrarily applies its decency regulations to content, but the agency says it has been consistent in policing the airwaves.

Yesterday's denials covered 36 instances from a variety of shows, such as the WB's "Gilmore Girls," NBC's "Friends," ABC's "NYPD Blue" and Fox's animated shows, "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill."

A number of the denials focused on the nickname -- also a slang term for the male sexual organ -- which increasingly is working its way into television scripts.

For instance, the agency ruled that it was not indecent when, during an Oct. 30, 2002, episode of the WB's "Dawson's Creek," one character says to another: "Listen, I know that you're [upset] at your dad for flaking on you. It doesn't mean he's a bad dad, and it doesn't mean he doesn't love you." Prompting another character to say, "No, it just means he's a [nickname/slang term for male sexual organ]."

In its ruling on the complaints, the FCC said "these were epithets intended to denigrate or were a play on words. Their use in these contexts was not sufficiently explicit or graphic and/or sustained to be patently offensive."

Lara Mahaney, director of corporate and entertainment affairs for the Parents Television Council, said yesterday's FCC rulings were "confusing" and reflected what she called the poor leadership on indecency enforcement by Michael K. Powell, FCC chairman.

Under the four-year chairmanship of Powell, who announced on Friday he would leave the agency in March, the FCC has proposed more indecency fines than under all previous chairmen combined.

Mahaney said her group tried to take out a newspaper ad featuring language the FCC had ruled was not indecent, only to have it rejected on taste grounds by a number of papers, including The Washington Post.

Ten of yesterday's 36 denied complaints featured the generally tasteless-but-not-indecent nickname/slang for the male sexual organ. An episode of "Friends" highlighted a discussion of a male-organ-shaped cake, though the cake was not shown on the screen. The rest included other common profanities, sexual innuendo, clinical terms for male and female sexual organs and at least one example of partial dorsal cartoon nudity.

The FCC ruled that the following scene -- part of a Nov. 23, 2003, episode of Fox's "King of the Hill," an animated comedy set in Texas -- was not indecent (per FCC language): "A cartoon boy is shown about to enter a communal shower at his school. An off-screen voice emanating from the shower asks, 'Is that a pimple or another nipple?' As the cartoon boy removes his towel and enters the shower, his buttocks are briefly depicted."

"Maybe that wasn't the best example," Mahaney said. "But there are plenty of solid, good ones" that the FCC has not ruled indecent.

In related news yesterday, Fox said it would rename a sports-talk show that appears on its cable channel, FSN, when it airs during Fox's network Super Bowl broadcast on Feb. 6. The nighttime show, called "Best Damn Sports Show Period" will be called "Best Darn Super Bowl Road Show Period."

"We decided to adjust the title for Super Bowl Sunday simply because what's appropriate for cable television isn't necessarily appropriate for broadcast television," said Fox Sports spokesman Lou D'Ermilio.

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