Cliffhanger

Question of FCC's ability to enforce decency in the air, as decency crumbles

The government agent, his feet thrashing in the air below him, frantically reached out for something, anything, to grab onto. Somehow, his hand found a loose tree root to clutch, just in time to prevent his plunge off the cliff.

Will he survive? Or will he fall to a sudden, certain, regulatory conclusion?

Tune in next season!

Sigh.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the Federal Communications Commission failed to give broadcast networks Fox and ABC fair warning before finding them in violation of decency rules a few years back. ABC had been fined $1.4 million for showing buttocks during an episode of NYPD Blue; Fox had not been fined, but had been cited for vulgarities on live awards shows in 2002 and 2003.

But on the precipice of a landmark ruling, the high court stepped back – artfully dodging the rather fundamental question of whether the FCC can enforce decency rules in the first place.

For now, thank goodness, it can.

The early headlines following the ruling sounded as if the FCC had been banned from policing decency on the public airwaves. Nope. The court merely – and correctly – threw out the citations in question, which will force the agency to tighten and improve its rules and expectations, as well as the due process accorded broadcasters.

The FCC’s authority to cite anyone for indecency? That will have to wait for a future episode.

It’s too bad ABC gets off the hook. It’s not as if the network had been blindsided by a foul-mouthed celebrity on live television. The network intentionally and with premeditation depicted nudity, and in prime time.

One rear end won’t a civilization crumble. But the cynical stunt was just one more push of the envelope, one more barrier that the no-walls, anything-goes crowd wants to tear down until there are no standards of decency.

The court’s limited ruling, though, was fair and necessary. If the rules of the road aren’t clear, it’s not right to hand out tickets.

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