The FCC this week launched an inquiry into whether the TV Parental Guidelines and the organization that oversees these ratings provide accurate information to viewers as to which TV programs are appropriate for children. The FCC released a Public Notice to initiate the inquiry at the direction of Congress in the recently passed Consolidated Appropriations Bill – the Bill which ended the threat of a second government shutdown. That Bill contained a number of provisions directing various government agencies to take specific actions, including a direction to the FCC to provide a report to Congress in 90 days on the “extent to which the rating system matches the video content that is being shown” and whether the TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board (which oversees the ratings system) has the ability to address public concerns about the ratings. With the report due to be submitted to Congress by May 15, the FCC has asked for public comment on an expedited basis, with comments due March 12, and replies due just a week later on March 19.

The Board was established by a voluntary industry initiative approved by the FCC following a Congressional mandate for V-Chip technology in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. For the V-Chip to work, programs have to be rated. The ratings that resulted are familiar to most TV viewers and range from TV-Y programming appropriate for all children to TV-MA, appropriate only for mature audiences. Programs are also rated for Violence (“V”), Fantasy Violence in programming for older children (“FV”), Sexual Content (“S”), Suggestive Dialogue (“D”) and Strong Language (“L”). These ratings are applied to most TV and cable programming except news, sports, and ads. Based on the claims by interest groups that the ratings do not accurately describe the programming, Congress issued this directive to the FCC. What questions does the FCC ask in its request for comments from the public?
Continue Reading Do TV Program Ratings Do a Good Job Telling Families Which Programs are Appropriate for Kids to Watch? Congress Wants to Know, So the FCC is Asking

In the next few days, concerns about the protection of children from indecency and violence could lead to a report from the FCC to Congress urging use of the V Chip and other parental controls in devices other than television sets.  Remarks several weeks ago by FCC Chair Julius Genachowski suggesting that the FCC might want to look at content regulation beyond the broadcast medium, a view reiterated in an interview yesterday in TV NewsCheck, also suggest that  concerns about the exposure of children to indecency and other troubling programming on cable, online and by wireless devices may lead the FCC into unprecedented extensions of its regulation of entertainment content beyond the broadcast media.  An article today from Bloomberg News confirms that the FCC will be starting an inquiry to see if the television program ratings should be extended to cable and wireless entertainment services.  This extension of Federal regulation to protect children is occurring at the same time that similar concerns are being expressed by state legislatures, including the adoption of a recent law in Maine that effectively prohibits direct marketing to minors.

The report due this week follows a Notice of Inquiry issued by the Commission in March, as required by the Child Safe Viewing Act, legislation passed by Congress.  The law required that the FCC solicit public comment on "advanced blocking technology", the next generation of the V Chip, to see if these technologies can and should be extended to video programming other than broadcast television, including online communications, wireless communications (including video delivered to mobile  devices), DVRs and other video recorders, DVD players, and cable television.  The FCC Notice also asked why the current V Chip has seemingly not been used much by parents.  The FCC even asks if rules should be extended to video games – which were not specifically named in the legislation.  This would seemingly extend the FCC’s jurisdiction far beyond its current limits.  The FCC’s report is due by August 29. 


Continue Reading Protection of Children Prompts Potential FCC Regulation of Internet and Wireless Video Programming and Enhanced State Privacy Rules

This week, after a long period when we saw little in the way of indecency enforcement by the FCC, the Commission issued two orders compelling payment of fines for television programs broadcast in 2003.  The Commission issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (an order proposing a fine) only a few weeks ago asking ABC affiliates to respond to a potential indecency violation in connection with an NYPD Blue episode run in February 2003 (see our description of the proposed fines here and here).  Only a week after the submission of arguments against the proposed fine made by the cited affiliates in a 75 page response to the Notice of Apparent Liability, the FCC issued its order rejecting the arguments against the fines – an unheard of speed in issuing a decision.  Each station involved was fined $27,500.  Then, later in the week, the FCC issued an Order which fined a number of Fox affiliates $7000 each for perceived indecency violations in an episode of the Married By America reality television program, also broadcast in 2003 – following up on a Notice of Apparent Liability issued over two years ago by the FCC.  In one case, an incredibly quick action resulting in a large fine against many stations – in another a smaller fine against far fewer stations.  Why the differences?

The reason for fines coming now was that, in both cases, the 5 year statute of limitations was coming to an end and, if the Commission did not quickly act, it would be precluded from doing so.  In both cases, the Commission determined that it would fine only stations against which complaints were filed.  In the case of Married by America, the Commission had sent a notice of Apparent Liability to 169 stations, but ended up fining only 13 against which actual complaints had been filed.  In contrast, the Commission fined 45 stations for the NYPD Blue episode, even though the "complaints" were in many cases filed months after the program aired on the stations, and even though many of the "complaints" did not even allege that the local viewer had actually seen the program for which the fine was issued.  Instead, many of the complaints were apparently initiated by an on-line campaign urging that the people write the FCC to complain about the program – even if they hadn’t necessarily seen it.  In its decision, the Commission concluded that the fines were appropriate – even without specific allegations that the program was watched by the people who complained.


Continue Reading A Tale of Two Indecency Decisions – FCC Issues Fines for Married by America and NYPD Blue

Just as the FCC issued its order to implement the statutory increase in the amount of indecency fines, raising them to $325,000 per violation (see our comment, here), its enforcement of its indecency policy may be dead in its tracks.  A three judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in a 2 to 1 decision released today, rejected the FCC’s actions against a number of television networks for broadcast indecency.  The FCC actions were in the context of "fleeting utterances," i.e. the use of specific words that the FCC determined were indecent whenever they were used.  The Court rejected the FCC decision as being arbitrary and capricious, as the FCC decisions overturned without sufficient rational explanation years of FCC precedent that had had held that the isolated use of these words was not actionable.  The FCC actions were sent back to the FCC for further consideration to see if the Commission could craft a decision that provided a rational explanation for this departure from precedent.

However, this may prove to be impossible.  While the Court’s decision was based on the FCC’s failure to provide a rational basis for its departure from precedent, the Court also said that it was difficult to imagine how the FCC could constitutionally justify its actions.  The Court pointed to the inconsistent decisions of the FCC – fining stations for the use of the "F-word" and the "S-word" in isolated utterances during awards shows, and when used in the context of a program like PBS’  The Blues, but finding that the same words were not actionable when used in Saving Private Ryan or when used by a Survivor contestant interviewed on CBS’ morning show.  In the Survivor case, the Court indicated particular confusion, as the Commission went out of its way to say that there was no blanket exclusion of news programming from the application of its indecency rules, but then it proceeded to find the softest of news – the Survivor cast-away interview – as being of sufficient importance to merit exclusion from any fine.  The Court felt that these decisions were so conflicting that a licensee would not be able to decide whether a use was permissible or not – and that such confusion, leaving so much arbitrary discretion in the hands of government decision-makers as to where to draw lines between the permissible and impermissible, would not withstand constitutional scrutiny.  It would have a chilling effect on free speech – and could be enforced in an arbitrary manner that could favor one point of view over another.


Continue Reading Second Circuit Throws Out FCC Indecency Fines