Last night’s Super Bowl didn’t offer much in the way of excitement on the field, as the game was seemingly over by the end of the first half.  But, for the last decade, the half-time show itself may offer some anxiety to the stations carrying the game.  10 years ago, Janet Jackson had her infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction incident which started a firestorm at the FCC for the next several years, as it ignited  many calls to more aggressively regulate indecency on the airwaves.  As a result of the incident, a number of fines were meted out for this program and to many others that aired soon thereafter.  But, in reality, what the incident did was to highlight just how difficult it is for the FCC to enforce any sort of indecency rules, as the issue raised at that time continue to be debated at the FCC right up to the present day.

As we have written before, the FCC policy that was applied to the Janet Jackson incident is one that is still in a state of limbo, as the FCC has issued a request for public comment on whether it should limit its enforcement to cases where there are egregious violations of the indecency policy rather than those that last a fraction of a second, as was the case in the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident.  This need for reexamination arose after the Supreme Court decided that the FCC’s crackdown on any indecency, even “fleeting expletives”, was not adequately explained as it departed from prior FCC policy that understood that, on occasion, mistakes happen.  As long as the error causing something arguable indecent to be broadcast wasn’t repeated or planned, there would be no substantial penalty.  But even the common sense reform which essentially stepped back to the prior policy of recognizing that mistakes happen gave rise to many protests that the FCC should not back down on its tough indecency enforcement
Continue Reading Ten Years After Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl Clothing Malfunction, FCC Indecency Rules Remain in Limbo

Last week brought a number of Washington developments that we’ll write about in more detail soon, including the FCC’s decision to relax the limitations on foreign ownership of broadcast stations.  But there were also a number of other actions that bear mention – including the decision released late Friday to extend the deadline for the filing of Biennial Ownership reports that are to be filed by all commercial broadcasters – including AM, FM, TV. LPTV and Class A TV station owners.  These more complicated versions of FCC Form 323 are filed every other year to assess diversity in the ownership of broadcast stations.  These reports were originally to be filed on November 1, but the filing date was extended to December 2 earlier this year (see our article here), due to the recognized complexity of the completion and electronic filing of these forms.  Now, after the FCC shutdown deprived broadcasters of several weeks’ preparation time in which the electronic forms were available for use, the deadline has been extended to December 20.  The FCC Public Notice warns filers to try to submit their reports before the deadline to avoid potential slowdowns in the electronic system due to an expected heavy volume of users as the deadline approaches.

In fact, the effect that heavy demands on FCC’s electronic filing system was made evident by the FCC’s last-minute decision to extend by one day the last day for filing LPFM applications.  That extended deadline passed on Friday, after being extended from the originally announced extended deadline (due to the government shutdown) of Thursday, because glitches in the FCC’s electronic filing system delayed last-minute filings before that Thursday deadline.  There has not yet been any announcement of the number of LPFM applications filed in the window, but many think that the number will rival if not exceed the thousands of applications filed in the 2003 FM translator window – applications that the FCC is still processing over 10 years after their filing.
Continue Reading Odds and Ends: Extension of Biennial Ownership Report Deadline, $110,000 Penalty for Indecency, Deadline for UHF Discount Comments, and Closing of the LPFM Window

The FCC’s indecency policy has been in limbo since last year’s Supreme Court decision determining that the Commission’s fines on broadcasters for fleeting expletives had not been adequately explained before being imposed. On Monday, the FCC took a step to clarifying that policy by asking for public comments on what it should do now. Should it formally adopt the policy that bans even fleeting expletives, and explain that policy to broadcasters to meet the issues that the Supreme Court raised? Or should it go back to the policy that had been in place before – the decision in the Pacifica case (known more popularly as the "seven dirty words" case, about which we wrote here) – where there had to be repetitive or deliberate use of expletives before the FCC would act. Comments will be due 30 days after this notice is published in the Federal Register, and replies 30 days after that.

The Commission stated that the public could comment on other aspects of its indecency enforcement as well, without specifying any specific areas of inquiry. One issue that would seem to be foremost in the FCC’s inquiry, but one which was not mentioned at all, is the constitutionality of the policy and its enforcement. This was an issue that was twice teed up to the Supreme Court, and both times that Court managed to avoid the issue by deciding cases before it on procedural "due process" grounds – essentially that the FCC had not given sufficient warning before adopting fines or that the FCC otherwise had not followed its own procedures when it changed its policies to a stricter enforcement standard. As the Court never finally resolved the constitutionality issue, it may well be back before the Court again – especially were the FCC to decide to pursue the stricter standard applied by the last Commission.


Continue Reading FCC Seeks Comments on Its Indecency Policy – How Should the Commission Enforce Its Policies After Last Year’s Supreme Court Ruling?

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today struck down the FCC’s indecency rules, finding that the rules were so vague as to not put broadcasters on notice of what programming was prohibited and what was permitted.  Today’s decision was reached following a remand of this case to the Second Circuit by the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court’s decision did not resolve all questions about the FCC’s rules, instead only deciding that the lower court’s prior decision voiding the rules was not justified.  The prior Second Circuit decision had not been decided on a constitutional basis, but instead it was based on the Court’s perception that the FCC had failed to justify its departure from prior FCC precedent that had excused broadcasters from liability for fleeting expletives.  The Supreme Court found that the departure from prior precedent was justified.  The Supreme Court left open the issue of whether the rules were constitutional, and sent the case back to the Second Circuit for further consideration.  In today’s decision, the Second Circuit takes up the constitutional review left open by the Supreme Court, and has determined that the vagueness of the FCC’s guidelines and the inconsistency in its decisions chilled the First Amendment rights of broadcasters in violation of the First Amendment. 

The Court, in reaching its decision, looked at a number of the Commission decisions on indecency which have arisen since the Commission started its enhanced enforcement of these rules in 2003.  After reviewing the cases, the Court felt that the FCC could not logically articulate when the use of certain prohibited words would be punished.  In one passage, the Court asks how the FCC can find that the broadcast use of expletives in the fictional movie Saving Private Ryan were permissible as the words were essential "to the realism and immediacy of the film experience for viewers", yet at the same time find that these same words did not rise to that same level of importance when spoken by real people in the PBS documentary The Blues.  The Court then cited numerous instances where broadcasters felt that their speech had been chilled – often refraining from airing significant programming for fear of FCC fines.  For instance, the Court cited one station that refused to cover a political debate as a candidate had previously used a forbidden word in a prior debate, and another case where stations did not run a documentary about emergency workers and the 9-11 tragedy as the documentary contained some actual footage from the Twin Towers, where emergency workers used some of those forbidden words. 


Continue Reading Court of Appeals Strikes Down FCC Indecency Rules

In the past several weeks, broadcast indecency has been back in the news – seemingly almost on a daily basis.  First, there was the story about Bob McDonnell, the Republican candidate for Virginia governor who, seemingly inadvertently, dropped the f-bomb, perhaps as a result of tripping over his tongue during a news interview on a news radio station in Washington.  Then came the extensive coverage of New York City TV newscaster Ernie Anastos who, during on-air banter with the weather man, also let the f-word fly – in what was apparently not a slip of the tongue, but perhaps a slip of the brain, where the anchor must have thought that he was somewhere other than on the set of a live TV newscast.  And then this past weekend, an actor on Saturday Night Live let the word fly during the late night program.  These incidents come on the heels of the FCC releasing its statistics on complaints that it had received in the first quarter of this year (reflecting many indecency complaints in the last month), while the Commission has asked the Court of Appeals for the opportunity to reexamine its decision in the Janet Jackson case to determine if any violation of the indecency rules was "willful."  What does all of this activity mean?

The recent well-publicized on-air slip-ups demonstrate how the fleeting expletive, which have formed the basis of a number of recent FCC cases, including the Supreme Court decision upholding the FCC’s authority to decide to change its prior holdings and issue fines for such utterances (but leaving open the constitutional questions as to whether the FCC regulation is consistent with the First Amendment), can no longer hide from public examination.  In the past, fleeting expletives were just that – fleeting.  If there was an on-air slip up, people in the audience may have done a double take, trying to decide if they really heard what they thought that they heard.  Often, there would be a shrug of the shoulders and the event would pass.  Not so in today’s electronic world.  Now, when a politician or a TV announcer slips up and let’s one of those you-can’t-say-that-on-TV words slip, the listening public quite often has the opportunity to check out YouTube or some other website to confirm what they did or didn’t hear.  As a recent press article about the NY anchor observes, these events become viral.  A similar observation was made today about the SNL skit.  And, when they become viral, the FCC often hears about it in the form of a complaint.  As the FCC does not usually monitor stations themselves looking for indecency, but instead only takes action where a member of the public complains, the viral preservation of these incidents have no doubt resulted in far more FCC complaints that would have otherwise occurred – certainly more than have occurred in the past.


Continue Reading Broadcast Indecency Can’t Hide – A Candidate for Governor, a TV Newscaster, Saturday Night Live and the Clothing Malfunction

Davis Wright Tremaine attorneys Amber Husbands and David Oxenford conducted a webinar on August 26, 2009 for the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, discussing legal issues of importance to on-air talent.  Issues discussed included broadcast indecency, station contests, sponsorship identification and payola issues, potential liability that can arise from the use of

Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored. 

With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.


Continue Reading Gazing Into the Crystal Ball – The Outlook for Broadcast Regulation in 2009

We recently wrote about the Notice of Apparent Liability for violation of the FCC’s indecency rules that was issued last week by the Federal Communications Commission, proposing to fine 52 ABC network affiliates $27,500 each.  This $1.4 million fine was suggested by the FCC for alleged violations which occurred almost 5 years ago in a broadcast of the