Pop Culture

Are ‘Simpsons’ and ‘Friends’ indecent?

Regulators rejected 36 complaints of indecency Monday against popular TV shows including “Friends” and “The Simpsons.”

The objections had been filed with the Federal Communications Commission by the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group that frequently complains about sex and violence on television.

“In context, none of the segments were patently offensive under contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, and thus not indecent,” the agency said in a statement. The FCC also ruled “the material was not profane, in context.”

Three members of the five-member FCC approved the orders: Chairman Michael Powell and Kathleen Abernathy, both Republicans; and Democrat Jonathan Adelstein. The two other commissioners, Democrat Michael Copps and Republican Kevin Martin, dissented on parts of the rulings.

Copps said in a statement that the agency should have performed a more thorough investigation. “I believe that some of these broadcasts present a much closer call,” he said.

Powell last week announced he was leaving the FCC in March. Martin, who has been rumored to be among candidates to replace him as chairman, said nothing about the complaints.

The Parents Television Council alleged that the programs, which aired between Oct. 29, 2001, and Feb. 11, 2004, contained sexually explicit segments or used indecent or profane language that violated indecency standards.

“In what community in America are graphic terms for genitalia decent?” said Lara Mahaney, a spokeswoman for the council. “The commission’s ruling added no clarification and added more confusion.”

One complaint involved an episode of NBC’s “Friends” that aired in May 2003. In it, a female character, her husband and the husband’s ex-girlfriend talk about a fertility treatment at a medical office.

A complaint over “The Simpsons,” which airs on Fox, included a scene in which students carried picket signs with the phrases “What would Jesus glue?” and “Don’t cut off my pianissimo.”

Federal law bars nonsatellite radio and noncable television stations from airing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are more likely to be listening and watching.

The FCC said the segments in question “were not patently offensive” within the context of the shows.

The FCC’s responses to indecency complaints have received extra scrutiny since singer Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at last year’s Super Bowl halftime show.

The FCC received more than 1 million indecency complaints in 2004, most of them involving the exposure of Jackson’s breast during her performance. Fines for indecent programming exceeded $7.7 million last year, a huge increase from the $48,000 imposed in 2000, the year before Powell became chairman.

Powell has said the crackdown was in response to mounting complaints from consumers and Congress.

Copps criticized Monday’s rulings as “rather cursory decisions” that did not address the objections of viewers nor those of skittish broadcasters worried about what may be too racy to air. He singled out concern for a movie that aired on ABC in May 2003, “The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer.”

A scene from the movie cited in the complaint included a male character tying up a woman in bed and then applying ice to her abdomen.

Several House and Senate members say they plan to introduce bills in the next few weeks to raise the maximum indecency fine. A similar bill that would increase the top fine from $32,500 to as much as $500,000 per incident stalled in Congress.

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