Say What?!

January 31, 2009

Here are five of the highest-profile television shows that have upset the FCC enough to spark enforcement actions during Kevin Martin's tenure as chair. Each of the episodes in question aired between 2002 and 2004—it takes the commission years to adjudicate indecency complaints.

The FCC objected to a scene in which a woman, facing away from the camera, removed a robe before stepping into the shower. A small boy walked into the bathroom, saw her naked, then backed out in embarrassment and closed the door. The commission levied fines against fifty-two ABC stations totaling $1.43 million.

"The scene in question revolves around the woman's nudity and includes several shots of her naked buttocks,"
according to the commission. "The material is thus dwelled upon and repeated." ABC paid the fines and has filed a challenge in federal court.

Other episodes of the police drama were declared indecent for using the word "bullsh—." The FCC did not propose fines in these cases, noting that it had toughened its policy since the episodes first aired.

Without a Trace
The "Our Sons and Daughters" episode told the fictional story of a young woman's disappearance and the FBI investigation that ensued. During a witness interrogation, a flashback scene depicted an orgy. "Although the scene contains no nudity," the FCC said, "it does depict male and female teenagers in various stages of undress. The scene also includes at least three shots depicting intercourse." The commission proposed $3.6 million in fines, then settled with CBS for $300,000.

Married By America
The Fox reality show featured scenes from bachelor and bachelorette parties where strippers performed various suggestive acts. A male stripper licked whipped cream off a woman's leg. A groom-to-be knelt on all fours and received a spanking from a female stripper whose breasts had been pixilated. "The scenes in question were imbued throughout with highly charged sexual content," the FCC declared, levying fines against thirteen stations totaling $91,000. The case is under appeal.

Billboard Music Awards
While accepting an award in 2002, Cher  used the F-word to tell her critics to take a hike. The following year, Simple Life actress Nicole Richie said, "Have you ever tried to get cow sh— out of a Prada purse?  It's not so f—-ing simple." The FCC insisted that, no matter how it's used, the F-word "inherently describes sexual activity." Though the commission did not fine Fox and its stations, it sent out a warning that unscripted expletives, broadcast live, could lead to penalties in the future.

The Early Show
During an early-morning interview, Twila Tanner of CBS's Survivor: Vanuatu described a fellow contestant as a "bullsh—-er." No other objectionable words were used. Still, the FCC said, "Because the interview dealt with the outcome of one of the most popular prime-time shows on broadcast television among children, it is foreseeable that young children not only would be in the audience at that time of day, but also that they would be attentive listeners to the interview with Ms. Tanner." The agency did not issue a fine, acknowledging that it had toughened its policy after the interview aired.