You Can't Say That on Television

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

U2'S BONO and the F-word will play starring roles this morning in a most unlikely venue: the U.S. Supreme Court.

For some three decades, the Federal Communications Commission determined that "fleeting" use of expletives did not meet the definition of indecency. Only repeated use of such words would trigger sanctions against broadcasters.

Then, in 2003, the rock star Bono used the F-word during the live, nationally televised Golden Globe Awards program. The FCC issued an edict that made broadcasters liable for even a single utterance of such language in programs aired between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to be watching. The justices are now being asked in the case of Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations to decide whether the FCC was on solid legal ground in reversing course. (The Washington Post Co., parent company of the newspaper and, owns broadcast and cable stations.)

Broadcasters have an obligation to keep their programming clean, and most have done so, even when they were assured a free pass if they aired an inadvertent curse word. This is true even of late-night programs such as the often-saucy "Late Show With David Letterman," which are not subject to these FCC regulations. Self-discipline and market forces -- in the form of advertisers that are often loath to be associated with off-color programs -- have worked.

Against this backdrop, the FCC has failed to justify its sudden change of precedent, leaving the strong impression that its decision was capricious. It has also been mystifyingly inconsistent in applying its new standard.

The tougher standards come as new technologies, such as the V-chip, allow parents to block programs they consider unsuitable. And major networks routinely delay live broadcasts by several seconds to give them time to bleep out unacceptable language.

In short, there is no need for the stiffer and seemingly arbitrary regulation. Yet another piece of evidence: There appear to be more off-color words in the briefs submitted in this case than have been aired by national broadcasters over the past several years.

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