About the FCC Guidelines....

Click for FCC Show main page

Last June the lawyer from Pacifica (John Crigler) gave a talk to the staff at KPFT and passed out a flyer he had put together about the new FCC guidelines. While not an official document of any sort, it does clarify to some extent what we in radio programming have to contend with. I'm sharing selective paragraphs from the flyer.

The FCC's indecency standard is both amorphous and complex. This memo gives some guidance as to its meaning by analyzing the definition of indecency and summarizing FCC rulings.

In 1987, the FCC replaced its "seven dirty words" indecency standard with a "generic" definition of indecency. Since then the Commission has levied indecency fines mounting to millions of dollars. Recent fines have been as high as $755,000, and pending legislation could push the maximum fine to $3 million or more.

Hours of Enforcement:
Indecent speech is speech protected by the First Amendment. Courts have ruled that indecency can be "channeled" but not banned. The FCC implements this distinction by enforcing its indecency policy between the hours of 6:00 am and 10:00 pm. The hours between 10:00 pm and 6:00 am are regarded as a "safe harbor" period during which indecent material may be aired without FCC sanction.

What Does the FCC Consider To Be "Indecent"?
The FCC considers a broadcast to be indecent if it contains "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs."

What Does That Mean?
The FCC considers three factors in determining whether material is indecent. The first factor is the explicitness or graphic nature of the material. The issue is whether, in context, the material depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities. Because the meaning of works or images is not always clear, and because the definition of indecency encompasses innuendo and double-entendre, the Commission first seeks to determine whether material has an "unmistakably" sexual or excretory meaning.

The second factor is whether the material dwells on or repeats sexual or excretory matters at length. This factor has been virtually eliminated by the FCC's ruling that Bono's use of the "F" word during the Golden Globes awards was actionably indecent, even though the word was used only in "isolated" and "fleeting" circumstances.

The third factor is whether the material panders, titillates or is used for shock value.

It is not necessary that material satisfy all three factors. For example, material that has an "unmistakably sexual" meaning may be indecent even if it is not titillating or pandering in nature.

How Do I Know If Material Is "Offensive"?
Material is offensive if it offends the "average" broadcast viewer or listener. Commission staff, and ultimately the Commissioners themselves, decide what the average person finds offensive. Examples of the Commission's findings include:

popular songs which contain repeated references to sex or sexual organs (e.g., "I Want To Be A Homosexual," "Penis Envy," "Walk With An Erection," "Erotic City," "Jet Boy Jet Girl," "Makin' Bacon");

DJ banter concerning tabloid sex scandals (e.g., Vanessa Williams' photographs in Penthouse and a honeymooner whose testicle was caught in a hot tub drain);

discussions between DJs and callers concerning intimate sexual questions (e.g., "What makes your hiney parts tingle?"; "What's the grossest thing you ever put in your mouth?");

dirty jokes or puns ("Liberace was great on the piano but sucked on the organ");

non-clinical references to gay or lesbian sex, masturbation, penis or breast size, sodomy, erections, orgasms, etc; description or simulation of various sexual acts;

and the seven dirty words (shit, fuck, piss, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits).

References to oral or non-heterosexual sex are typically found to be "patently offensive." The FCC does not ask for any evidence on the issue of whether material is "offensive." In one instance, however, it reversed a decision that the hip-hop song, "Your Revolution," was indecent, based, in part, on evidence that the performer, Sarah Jones, was invited to perform the song in high schools and junior highs.

The flyer went on for several more pages, but the highlights above should be a good introduction.

no FCC

Also of interest, "fair use" copyright law