How can I take action against television indecency?

Although the Federal Communications Commission has slightly increased its response to consumer complaints of broadcast indecency, local television stations continue to ignore the laws that govern their use of the public airwaves.

First Amendment considerations prohibit the FCC for preventing what goes out over the airwaves. They are, however, authorized by Congress to levy fines or pull broadcast licenses from stations after they air indecent or profane content.

The process for insuring television broadcasts comply with decency guidelines is delegated to the viewer first, because stations are licensed to "serve the public interest." The FCC does not monitor or record the broadcasts of thousands of stations across the nation.

When a citizen watches a television program, he or she should reasonably expect the content of that broadcast to be free of indecent or profane language. When the station breaks the public trust by broadcasting content which the viewer feels violates community standards, the citizen can file a complaint against the station with the FCC. In turn, the FCC will begin a formal investigation to determine if the station is subject to fines or license termination. 

Understanding the FCC

With the growing concern regarding TV¹s slide into the gutter, it is imperative that viewers understand what kind of content violates the rules and what one person can do about it.

It is a violation of federal law to broadcast obscene programming at any time. It is also a violation of federal law to broadcast indecent or profane programming between 6:00 a.m. And 10:00 p.m. Congress has given the FCC responsibility for enforcing such broadcast laws.

Unfortunately, there is no such governance over cable TV because it does not operate over the airwaves, which are considered property of the citizenry.

There are subtle lines that differentiate between what is meant by obscene, indecent and profane. Obscenity. The FCC uses a definition of obscenity from Miller v. California (U.S. Supreme Court, 1973), which ruled, "A work may be subject to state regulation where that work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex; portrays, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and, taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."

Indecency

The FCC defines broadcast indecency as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities."

The courts have held that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely, but it may be restricted in order to avoid broadcast on TV or radio when children are likely to be in the audience. Offensive sexual or excretory references are examples of material that might be deemed indecent.

Profanity

The FCC defines profanity as language that "denote[s] certain of those personally reviling epithets naturally tending to provoke violent resentment or denoting language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance." Like indecency, profanity is prohibited on broadcast radio and television from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Meaning and context are also critical elements in the FCC process of determining indecency and profanity.

Essential information

Accordingly, the FCC asks complainants to provide three basic pieces of information:

  1. Information regarding the details of what was actually said (or depicted) during the allegedly indecent, profane or obscene broadcast. The complainant may submit a significant excerpt of the program describing what was actually said (or depicted) or a full or partial recording (e.g., Tape) or transcript of the material.

    In whatever form the complainant decides to provide the information, it must be sufficiently detailed so the FCC can determine the words and language actually used during the broadcast and the context of those words or language. Moreover, the FCC must know the context when analyzing whether specific, isolated words are indecent or profane.
  2. The date and time of the broadcast. It is necessary that complainants provide the date and time when the material in question was broadcast.
  3. The call letters of the station involved must be included.

The FCC now provides viewers with a quick and easy online complaint form.  It takes only a few minutes to file a formal complaint against your local broadcast station.  Click here to file a formal indecency complaint with the FCC.

To file FCC complaints by mail:
Federal Communications Commission
Enforcement Bureau
Investigations and Hearings Division
445 12th St., SW, Room 3-B443
Washington, DC 20554