For better or worse, the Federal Communications Commission has become best known during the eight years of the Bush Administration for a one-second glimpse of Janet Jackson’s right breast.
It wasn’t just that single incident at halftime of Super Bowl XXXVIII on Feb. 1, 2004 that was the issue. Instead, it represented an effort by the federal government to draw a clear line in the sand when it came to any type of obscenity over the public airwaves.
Amid that same climate, the FCC reversed a long-standing policy of cracking down only on repeated expletives and acted when “fleeting expletives” were uttered by Cher during the 2002 Billboard Music Awards, and by Nicole Richie during Billboard’s 2003 ceremonies. A federal appeals court ruled in favor of the Fox network in a case involving those instances, but the Supreme Court took up the case and heard oral arguments on it in early November.
But in January a Democratic administration under President-elect Barack Obama will take over, and many eyes will be on the FCC to see which direction it goes. Will it pursue strict or even stricter enforcement than the previous administration, or will it loosen the reins?
“First and foremost, every complaint deserves to be adjudicated on its merits,” said Dan Isett, director of public policy for the Parents Television Council, a conservative watchdog group. “That should be the case no matter who the president is.”
The PTC has become a hub for many parents who are unhappy with content that goes out over the broadcast airwaves. As a result of Jackson, Cher, Richie, another expletive uttered by U2’s Bono during the 2003 Golden Globes Awards, and other less high-profile incidents, the PTC has helped to generate complaints filed with the FCC when it and its members feel certain segments of the television landscape have become too coarse and therefore unacceptable for viewing by children.
Isett feels that will not change under an Obama Administration. “I don’t think people generally, or our members in particular, are more or less apt to exercise their First Amendment rights regardless of who the chairman is,” he said.
“From our perspective, what’s important is the content of a show. If the content violates federal decency standards, we’ll inform our members.”
Economy, not TV profanity, concerns parents most
But Ed Carter, an assistant professor of communications at Brigham Young University and a former newspaper reporter, said there may be a subtle change.
“I don’t get the feeling the PTC will stop its efforts just because it’s a different administration,” Carter said. “But what you might see is that interest may wane a little bit. I think the Janet Jackson incident hypersensitized the topic.”
Carter suggested the current economic downturn may also have an effect on complaints to the FCC. “If I’m a parent out there in America and I’m thinking about feeding my family and keeping clothes on my kids,” he said, “I don’t know if I’d be that worried about some entertainer’s top coming off.”
The new president will appoint his own commissioners, which means three Democrats — including a new chairperson — will soon head the FCC, along with two Republicans. It is likely that either Michael J. Copps or Jonathan S. Adelstein, the two current Democratic commissioners, will become chairman.
Obama has clashed with the current FCC on the issue of media ownership and mergers. Yet he has suggested he favors “network neutrality,” or equal access to bandwidth for all users and applications, which puts him in line with the current FCC.
But his feelings on how the FCC should act on issues of obscene language and content is less clear.
“I don’t necessarily think that under Obama there will be an atmosphere of freewheeling TV where it can do what it wants under the new regime,” said John Nichols, blogger and Washington correspondent for The Nation. “In fact, if you look at some of Obama’s statements, he’s been very critical of television, particularly of violence, and of many things concerning parents groups.
“My sense is that Obama appointees will be sympathetic to citizen complaints. I don’t think they’ll be inclined toward censorship, and they’ll have a deeper concern for civil liberties and free speech concerns. But they won’t have a laissez-faire approach.”
Whatever an Obama Administration does in the way of revamping the FCC will have no effect on the case currently before the Supreme Court that may help determine whether one-time expletives constitute a violation of federal law, or if a network must be shown to have allowed repeated uses of expletives before it can be punished.
“If I had to guess,” said BYU’s Carter, “I would say that the court will try to reach some kind of narrow decision to avoid the constitutional questions altogether.”
A senior network executive based in Washington, D.C., who asked not to be identified, expects a more reasonable FCC under Obama.
“Obama has said that indecency should be regulated by parents, not the government, which is our mantra as well,” the executive said. “As a Harvard-trained lawyer, I guess he finds government intrusion appalling. He’s publicly made clear that he has no stomach for government regulation. I’m actually with Obama. I believe we’ll see a backing off of enforcement of indecency.”
The network executive believes that certain parents' groups, especially ones on the right wing, will continue to be active no matter which president is in office.
“This is the Christian right. The people filing complaints will keep filing complaints,” the executive said, referring specifically to the PTC. “This organization has to justify its existence. This is how they raise money, by scaring its members into thinking that people are having sex on television.”
Said the PTC’s Isett: “We’ll continue to hold the FCC responsible for the enforcement of the law.”
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles an is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com