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Another FCC Ruling You Shouldn't Swear By

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page C07

The Federal Communications Commission continues its flipping and flopping over the broadcast of Vice President Cheney's favorite four-letter word.

Most recently, the FCC announced it has nixed indecency and obscenity complaints it received over CNN's live telecast of the word by the producer of the Democratic National Convention. The FCC didn't say how many complaints it had received (as one commission staffer once told The TV Column, "It only takes one") about the coverage.

A classic example of the FCC's waffling on profanity involved Bono's use of Vice President Cheney's favorite four-letter word at the Golden Globes ceremony. (Reuters)

Specifically, the complaint-senders were offended when convention producer Don Mischer began to swear, while miked, because his convention-cliche balloons had not dropped on cue at the end of Sen. John Kerry's Reporting-for-Duty acceptance speech.

CNN had thought during its convention planning that it might be fun to mike Mischer. Oops on that.

In its decision Friday, the FCC noted that it doesn't have the authority to slap CNN with an indecency fine because it's, hello, a cable network, and the commission does not regulate indecency and profanity on cable and satellite subscription services. Not yet, anyway.

But the FCC added in its statement -- as though it were on the payroll of Fox News Channel or something -- that viewers who wish to selectively block "unwanted television programming" do have a number of tools available. Options include demanding that a cable operator block programming, or demanding a "lock-box" from their local cable operator to selectively block "unwanted material" themselves, the FCC explained.

Cheerfully ignoring that pesky non-authority thing, the FCC went ahead and determined that Mischer's use of the Cheney Word was not obscene because CNN's telecast was not hard-core pornography, and did not appeal to "prurient interest" or lack "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."

Interestingly, the FCC did not get around to addressing whether Mischer's use of the Cheney Word on CNN was "profane" or "indecent."

You know, like when Bono was given a Golden Globe Award and, in his enthusiasm, took the mike and said, live on NBC, that getting the award was "[Cheney Word variant] brilliant."

That was definitely profane and indecent, the FCC determined in 2004.

In 2003, not so much.

The FCC's enforcement bureau had decided that year that Bono's Golden Globe acceptance speech was neither indecent nor obscene because he had not used the word to describe a sexual act, the use was fleeting, non-sexual, blah, blah, blah.

But once Americans caught a glimpse of Janet Jackson's right breast, well, Bono's acceptance speech naturally became profane and indecent. That's what the FCC commissioners decided in March '04 when they overruled their enforcement bureau's '03 decision.

The Cheney Word, the FCC said at the time, "is one of the most vulgar, graphic and explicit descriptions of sexual activity in the English language," adding that "[i]f the Commission were routinely not to take action against isolated and gratuitous uses of such language on broadcasts when children were expected to be in the audience, this would likely lead to more widespread use of the offensive language." The commissioners went on to warn that they would not tolerate any future broadcasts of the Cheney Word.

Unless, of course, when used by actors playing American World War II heroes on an award-winning flick broadcast by ABC.

Then it's perfectly okay, the FCC ruled unanimously in February -- grievously, about three months after 66 ABC stations opted out of the network's Veterans Day broadcast of "Saving Private Ryan" because of the FCC's earlier missive re the whole Cheney-Word-use non-tolerance thing.

"In light of the overall context in which this material is presented, the commission determined that it was not indecent or profane," the FCC said at that time, too late to be of any use.

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