It's no surprise that the FCC exonerated ABC's broadcast of Saving Private Ryan. Michael Powell had indicated this ruling was in the works a few months ago, and the decision echoes an earlier FCC ruling about an unexpurgated broadcast of the Spielberg movie in 2002. But with this decision, the FCC has now come full circle in its torrid affair with that "most profane word in the English language" (the FCC's words). As a broadcaster, I'm more confused than ever over where the line is, except that I can now rest assured that if Senator John McCain introduces an academy award-winning Steven Spielberg production about World War 2 on WFMU, our first amendment rights will be protected.
Let's review the recent history of the FCC's love/hate relationship with the F-word:
October 3, 2003: The FCC rules that the word "Fuck" is legal, as long as it's used as an adjective. This was in reference to Bono saying "fucking brilliant" as he accepted an award during the Golden Globe awards. The FCC's ruling is here. An excerpt:
"As a threshold matter, the material aired during the "Golden Globe Awards" program does not describe or depict sexual and excretory activities and organs. The word "fucking" may be crude and offensive, but, in the context presented here, did not describe sexual or excretory organs or activities. Rather, the performer used the word "fucking" as an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation. Indeed, in similar circumstances, we have found that offensive language used as an insult rather than as a description of sexual or excretory activity or organs is not within the scope of the Commission's prohibition of indecent program content."
March 3, 2004: Barely a month after nipplegate, the FCC reverses itself on the initial Bono ruling, going so far as to call it's earlier decision "bad law." The March, 2004 ruling is here. In it, the FCC seemed to be saying that, contrary to it's decision from five months ealier, the F-word was never acceptable on broadcast media. An excerpt:
"We believe that, given the core meaning of the "F-Word," any use of that word or a variation, in any context, inherently has a sexual connotation, and therefore falls within the first prong of our indecency definition... The use of the "F-Word" here, on a nationally telecast awards ceremony, was shocking and gratuitous. In this regard, NBC does not claim that there was any political, scientific or other independent value of use of the word here, or any other factors to mitigate its offensiveness. If the Commission were routinely not to take action against isolated and gratuitous uses of such language on broadcasts when children were expected to be in the audience, this would likely lead to more widespread use of the offensive language.
While prior Commission and staff action have indicated that isolated or fleeting broadcasts of the "F-Word" such as that here are not indecent or would not be acted upon, consistent with our decision today we conclude that any such interpretation is no longer good law. By our action today, broadcasters are on clear notice that, in the future, they will be subject to potential enforcement action for any broadcast of the "F-Word" or a variation thereof in situations such as that here."
Seems clear enough, doesn't it? You can't ever air a fuck, even if it's not used sexually, even if it's just a single "fuck." No wonder than that 66 ABC television affiliates decided not to air Saving Private Ryan, which contains 21 cases of the F-word.
February 28, 2005: The FCC rules unanimously that Saving Private Ryan is perfectly fine to broadcast, due to it's gritty tale of heroism and personal sacrifice. The ruling is here. "Fuck" is OK as long as it's swaddled in patriotism and it's won an Oscar.
In yesterday's decision, The FCC even went so far as to defend it's sanctioning of Bono:
"The utterance of the word "fucking" by a performer during the Golden Globe Awards telecast occurred in the context of a live awards program in which use of the word was shocking and gratuitous, where no claim of any political, scientific or other independent value was made, and during which children were expected to be in the audience."
And Michael Powell even weighs in with his own statement:
"Americans are not excessively prudish, only that they are fed up with being ambushed with content at times and places they least expect it."
In its ruling yesterday, the FCC goes on and on about the gritty realism of Saving Private Ryan, describing its plot in great detail, mentioning it's awards, credentials and its gritty portrayal of heroism. The FCC also mentions the number of disclaimers and announcements that were made throughout the broadcast, warning people to stay away, lest one of the 21 "fucks" leap out and ambush an unsuspecting viewer.
But previously, the Supreme Court had said that such disclaimers were irrelevant if they occured during hours when children might be in the audience, which was clearly the case with Saving Private Ryan, which aired prior to the FCC's 10pm-6am "safe harbor" period. In the 1978 George Carlin "filthy words" case (FCC versus Pacifica), the Supreme Court reinforced the FCC's decision that:
"...if an offensive broadcast had literary, artistic, political, or scientific value, and were preceded by warnings, it might not be indecent in the late evening, but would be indecent during the day, when children are in the audience."
So are disclaimers sufficient to protect the children from F-word ambushes? No. I mean Yes. Is the F-word OK if used as an adjective? Yes. Did I say "yes?" I meant to say "no." What were we thinking? Are 21 "fucks" OK for World War Two portrayals? Yes. How about the invasion of Grenada? The My Lai Massacre? Abu Ghraib? Only the five members of the FCC know for sure.
Let's hope the rumors floating around FCC circles in Washington, DC are true: that Fox and other big commercial broadcasters will soon be petitioning a US Federal District Court in New York for protection from the FCC's contradictory and capricious decision making.
If you enjoyed reading all about the F-word, then you're sure to enjoy this remix of Madonna's own F-word ambush. (MP3) Madonna's people had planted fake Madonna MP3s on various file sharing networks, and when the unsuspecting downloaders opened the file, Madonna excoriated them with a "This is Madonna. What the fuck do you think you're doing?" Within hours, there were dozens upon dozens of remixes floating around the web. This was one of them.