Indecent Exposure


If the Federal Communications Commission has its way, TV shows like "Married…with Children," "In Living Color," and "Saturday Night Live" could be a thing of the past. In response to a 1988 congressional mandate, the FCC is seeking to expand its time-of-broadcast restrictions on "indecent" programming to a 24-hour ban.

The ban has been challenged as a violation of the First Amendment by a broad coalition that includes the National Association of Broadcasters, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Action for Children's Television. A federal appeals court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case, Action for Children's Television v. FCC, on January 28.

"We firmly believe that the FCC will find the 24-hour ban unconstitutional," says Steven A. Bookshester, associate general counsel for the NAB. "It makes no sense to say that you can ban protected speech from the airwaves."

The FCC's definition of indecency is "language that describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activity or organs." Bookshester notes that the "community" setting those standards in effect consists of the FCC's five commissioners. "One can only imagine what the FCC would find indecent," he says. "It is what they say it is."

The ban would not apply to cable television. The FCC reasons that subscribing to cable TV requires an action beyond purchasing a television set and that parents can use lock devices to keep their kids from watching, say, the Playboy Channel. But Bookshester notes that locks are also available for broadcast television; in any case, he says, parents can always pull the plug.

More surprising than the NAB's stand is the position of ACT, which pushed the Children's Television Act on the assumption that parents can't be expected to control their kids' exposure to toy commercials and mindless cartoons. ACT says it wants to improve the quality of children's shows, not transform all programming into kiddie TV. ACT's president, Peggy Charren, told Fortune: "Protecting children from indecency is the job of parents."