What could be a landmark ruling for television networks, and the first step to really de-fanging the Federal Communications Commission came from the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday.
The justices said that the FCC can no longer enforce penalties against networks that air live or scripted programming with "fleeting expletives" and nudity. It clears the networks of a number of fines issued over recent years by the FCC, including the Janet Jackson nipple exposure during a Super Bowl halftime show, a naked woman in a 2003 episode of "NYPD Blue," and even singer Bono's Golden Globes acceptance speech in 2003 where he said "really, really fucking brilliant."
While the ruling overturns these past fines, it doesn't stop the FCC from imposing new fines in the future. The 8-0 ruling stated that the FCC "failed to give Fox or ABC fair notice prior to the broadcasts in question that fleeting expletives and momentary nudity could be found actionably indecent," according to CNN. That could mean the FCC might be able to return to its policing ways by making its rules much more clear, and putting the networks on notice.
The ruling was specific on how the policies were applied, not on the policies themselves, so at the moment, the FCC still has the ability to regulate what kind of content is shown on the free broadcast airwaves utilized by networks like NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and The CW. However, it doesn't affect the cable channels, since they are not offered over the airwaves, which is all the FCC is allowed to regulate.
That's why the language and nudity standards on such basic cable shows as "Mad Men" and "Dallas" is much different from what can be found on the networks. To help compete with these freedom, networks have been pushing the envelope for the past decade or so, especially with shows like "NYPD Blue," which was infamous for its butt shots and occasional expletives that were not normally found in other programs.
The FCC was established by the Communications Act of 1934 that was originally charged to help license broadcasts over the airwaves, so that one entity did not overpower others, and give equal access to those airwaves. However, in later years, the FCC became charged with enforcing decency over those very airwaves, becoming a sort of police force of content that some might deem objectionable. It stretched its power in not only television, but also radio as well, going after the likes of current "America's Got Talent" judge Howard Stern.
But now the FCC will have to adjust its approach, something that ABC was happy about.
"We're pleased with the decision of the Supreme Court regarding the episode of 'NYPD Blue,' and we are reviewing the entire ruling carefully," the network said in a statement to Deadline.com.
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