NBC's On-Air War on the FCC

One of the bold new frontiers in broadcast television’s crusade to make the boob tube safe for profanity is the "news" excuse. The Federal Communications Commission recently ruled it was safe to use the barnyard profanity in the manufacturing of news.

The test case was a 2004 segment on CBS’s "The Early Show," an interview with cast members of CBS’s reality show "Survivor" in which one used the word "(B.S.)-er." According to the FCC, this constituted a "news" event, and news events are exempt from fines. But is it really "news" when a network uses its morning show to promote its prime-time lineup?

Calling this "news" opens a big profanity loophole. Even worse is the commission’s creation of a provision for the networks themselves to determine what fits this "news" definition. What’s next? It’s not to hard to imagine CBS lawyers trying the argument that the Janet Jackson Super Bowl striptease happened during a news program, since there are few events that garner more news than the Super Bowl.

The broadcast networks are trying everything to muddy the waters while creating a national backlash against the FCC, embarking on a campaign filled with distortions, and using their own programs to promote them.

NBC recently ordered a full season of episodes for the one-hour drama "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," Aaron Sorkin’s dreadfully unfunny show about a fictional "Saturday Night Live." NBC is using this series to campaign against the FCC using the "news" event angle, and distorting it to kingdom come.

Here’s how Sorkin glorified the "news" excuse on his show: The fictional network NBS gets in trouble with the FCC when its embedded reporter in Afghanistan is interviewing an American soldier who then drops the F-bomb when a grenade lands nearby. And with that, the fun begins.

Almost instantaneously, the FCC has decided to levy a $73 million fine. One of the show’s fictional network executives cracks, "You have to understand that pro-family groups support our troops in this time of war, just as long as we don’t have to see or hear what our troops fighting in a war looks like and sounds like."

Lawyers counsel surrender to the Evil Empire in D.C., but that’s when a top executive charges in to save the day. The plot turns when the ever-boorish Ed Asner dramatically growls and sermonizes that he won’t pay the fine, as inspirational music plays underneath the speech:

"I won’t pay a 73-million-dollar fine. I won’t pay a 73-cent fine! I won’t time-delay the news, and I won’t say I’m sorry! I no longer recognize the authority of the FCC on this matter. I’m going to have to be ordered by a federal judge. And when they come to get my transmitter, they better, they better send a group a hell of a lot more scary than the Foundation for Friendly Families or whatever they are! Let those guys embed themselves with the Second Marine Division for a while. … This is the one (fight) I’ve been waiting for my whole life!"

Did that speech give you goose bumps or what?

In just how many ways is this scenario laughable? First, broadcast network reporters rarely if ever interview soldiers they’re embedded with on live broadcasts. They haven’t been routinely embedded with troops since 2003. When they do interview soldiers, the interviews are taped, and any profanity could be — would be — easily edited out.

Second, a $73 million FCC fine? This is beyond absurd. CBS owns its network and 21 affiliates, meaning their maximum fine would be about $6.8 million, if you find it the least bit plausible that the FCC would go nuclear over this one word in a news interview in a war zone. The current record fine, for the Janet Jackson incident, is $550,000 — if it’s ever paid. The FCC’s rapid response is also comical, since these decisions take years, not hours.

Third, since when do supporters of family-friendly TV automatically favor every battle in the war on terror? People of different political stripes can dislike raunchy sex and grisly violence and vile obscenities on TV. There are millions of Americans who are opposed to the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and also dislike the damage broadcast TV is doing to children. Yes, and that includes even Christian conservatives (ask Pat Buchanan).

 The solution remains very simple. Whether the live program is news, sports or any other form of entertainment, a simple seven-second delay for obscene surprises would put an end to the problem immediately. Seven seconds. And the networks are refusing to do this with a very simple reason that they want to broadcast obscene language, at whatever time they choose, no matter who it affects.