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On-the-air dirty talk gets expensive

But will fines clean up TV?

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THE INCIDENT: Janet Jackson.
  • THE INCIDENT: Janet Jackson.

The price of dirty talk on the air has just gone up drastically, motivating local TV stations to try even harder to keep their programming clean.

“We can’t afford a $325,000 fine,” Allen Weatherly, executive director of AETN said. “Most stations can’t.”

Earlier this month, President Bush signed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, increasing the maximum penalty for broadcasting indecent material on radio or television between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. from $32,500 to $325,000. The hours are those in which it is presumed children might be watching. The new act didn’t change the definition of indecency — it’s anything that has “patently offensive” sexual or excretory content. The Federal Communications Commission will decide what meets that standard and impose fines.

In signing the legislation, Bush said that complaints to regulators about indecency on the airwaves had exploded in recent years. “The language is becoming coarser during the times when it’s more likely children will be watching television. It’s a bad trend, a bad sign. People are saying ‘We’re tired of it, and we expect the government to do something about it.’ ”

The Public Broadcasting System has advised all its member stations, including AETN, to edit out coarse language and to obscure the lips of the person using the language, so that viewers can’t tell what was said just by looking. PBS said it was trying to protect the stations “from the now-catastrophic financial sanctions and expensive litigation associated with FCC indecency enforcement activity.”

The new act applies to commercial stations too, including the network affiliates in Little Rock. It does not apply to cable channels; HBO and Comedy Central can continue doing what they’ve been doing — that is, broadcasting things that many people would consider indecent. (Comedy Central once aired an episode of the animated comedy “South Park” in which the word “shit” was uttered 162 times in 30 minutes.) Congress has not exerted the same control over cable television that it has over the broadcast stations. The rationale apparently is that the stations are using public airwaves. The National Association of Broadcasters has said that any indecency rules applied to broadcasters should apply to cable and satellite TV also.

The cry to clean up TV got louder after the famous case of Janet Jackson and the Malfunctioning Wardrobe. While the singer was performing at halftime of the 2004 Super Bowl, one of her breasts was exposed briefly. She said later that the exposure was accidental. Broadcast by CBS, the Super Bowl was the most-watched program of the 2003-2004 television season, with almost 90 million viewers.

KTHV at Little Rock was one of the CBS stations that carried the Super Bowl and its halftime show. Larry Audas, president and general manager of KTHV, said that if the station had known in advance about the wardrobe incident, it would somehow have avoided showing it. But the performance was live, and there was no notice. With regular taped programming, networks generally give advance notice to their affiliates about the content. “The key is knowing what’s going to happen ahead of time,” said Rick Rogala, general manager of KARK. He said that KARK was always alert to the possibility of indecent programming, but the new fines had made everyone involved with program production, including networks and syndicators, even more attentive. Locally produced programs, such as the stations’ nightly newscasts, are not a problem, Audas said. It’s the network programming that produces complaints.

Weatherly said that PBS usually sent an edited and an unedited version of its programs. But he fears that even the edited version might not pass muster in the current climate. Two years ago, AETN showed a documentary on the blues, made by the movie director Martin Scorsese, that contained some strong language. AETN got by with it. But last March, a San Mateo, Calif., station was fined for showing the same program — probably because some national organization complained. National watchdog groups generate most of the complaints, Weatherly said.

Although the law and the FCC seem to be getting stricter, “the standards are very inconsistent right now,” making it difficult for local stations to know how to adjust, Weatherly said. AETN’s live call-in shows may have to be tape-delayed, so they can be edited before showing. “If some caller corks off an obscene word, we’re liable.”

When AETN was young, there were a lot of complaints about the boldness of PBS programming. Times have changed. “In the old days, local viewers complained about things that were left in the programs,” Weatherly said. “Now, they’re as likely to complain about things that are left out.”

Chuck Spohn, general manager of KLRT, also doesn’t believe that the new, larger fines will produce a milder sort of television. “When ‘Married, With Children’ went on the air [in 1987] it was considered quite risqué,” Spohn said. “Now it seems like a glass of warm milk.” He recalled that TV executives would only show Elvis Presley from the waist up to keep the audience from seeing his hip movements, a move that would seem laughable today.

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