Regulating Risque Content: Obscenity and Violence on Television

by Macy Jenkins

First Amendment

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” [1]

Material labeled “obscene” is not protected by the First Amendment, and therefore is subject to banning and criminal prosecution by federal and state governments.

Federal Communications Commission

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was established by Franklin Roosevelt in 1934.  The Commission had the right to restrict content, to require fairness in political programming and to regulate public use.  The fairness doctrine was dropped in the 1980’s but laws against obscenity, indecency, and profanity have prevailed since the 1950’s. [2]

Obscenity vs. Indecency vs. Profanity

A three-pronged test was established by the Supreme Court to define obscenity:

  • An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest
  • The material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law
  • The material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. [3]

Indecency is defined by the FCC as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.”

Source: West Seattle Funblog

Source: West Seattle Funblog

Profanity is defined by the FCC as “language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”

It is a violation of federal law to (1) air obscene programming at any time, or (2) air indecent programming or profane language on broadcast television or radio between 6:00 am and 10:00 pm time. [3]

Although the FCC has the power to revoke a station’s license for noncompliance, it will typically charge the network with fine but leave their licenses in place.

Federal Communications Commission vs. Fox Television Stations (2012)

The gist of it: The FCC wanted to fine FOX for “fleeting expletives” on awards shows by Cher and Nicole Richie in 2002 and 2003.  (Before 2004, the FCC banned only repeated uses of certain four letter words).  The FCC also fined ABC over one million dollars for showing seven seconds of buttocks and a glimpse of “side breast” on NYPD Blue.

The ruling: The Supreme Court ruled that the FCC’s regulations were unconstitutionally vague and not clear enough for broadcasters to be able to follow them. [4] It held that broadcasters had a right to be warned if changes were going to be made to FCC policy. [5]

Recent headlines

Superbowl profanity

CBS is currently under fire after airing profanity during the Superbowl.  Just after the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco used the F-word and another player said another curse word.  The moment aired on CBS because the network hadn’t set up a time delay.  The Parents Television Council (PTC) is calling for the FCC to fine CBS.

Ironically, CBS had set up a time delay for Beyonce’s halftime performance – remember Janet? – but did not set up a time delay for the on-field coverage. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

Ironically, CBS had set up a time delay for Beyonce’s halftime performance – remember Janet? – but did not set up a time delay for the on-field coverage. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

PTC president Tim Winter said the following in a statement [6]:

“Now nine years after the infamous Janet Jackson incident, the broadcast networks continue to have ‘malfunctions’ during the most-watched television event of the year, and enough is enough.  After more than four years of inaction on broadcast decency enforcement, the FCC must step up to its legal obligation to enforce the law, or families will continue to be blindsided.”

A 2011 study by The Parents Television Council found a 69% increase in profanity on primetime television between 2005 and 2010.  [7]  Source: Parenting Starts Here

A 2011 study by The Parents Television Council found a 69% increase in profanity on primetime television between 2005 and 2010. [7] Source: Parenting Starts Here

Egregious Cases ONLY

On April 1st, the FCC announced that September 2012, it had eliminated 70% of its pending indecency complaints.  That’s over one million cases.  FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stated that FCC officials will only focus on the “most egregious examples” of violations. [8]

A large concern is the amount of backlog that the agency is up against.  At the same time of the announcement, the FCC asked for a public comment as to whether the cut back on the enforcement should actually occur.

PTC’s Winter weighed in on this, saying “either material is legally indecent or it is not.”

Violence in American Television

Violence is more prevalent than sex in American television.  Some believe we’ve simply become desensitized to violent scenes.  Experts believe the effects of continuous violent depiction is detrimental to society as a whole.

Self Regulation

Each network has a standards and practices department, which reviews programming and advertisements.  The idea is to regulate content to keep many different parties happy.  They have to meet FCC restrictions, intellectual property guidelines and personal rights requirements.  At the same time, the networks are concerned with serving the good of society and also preserving the image of the network.  And they have to keep a broader range of advertisers happy than cable networks do. [9]

V-Chip Technology

A “V-chip” allows adults to block television programs that they don’t want children to watch.  Each program is encoded with a rating (see below).  Adults can then program their televisions to only allow programs with a certain rating to be accessible.  The Telecommunications Act of 1996 required all U.S. television sets to have V-chips. [10]

Content Rating System

The ratings system established in 1997 [9]:

  • TV-Y:         Appropriate for all children
  • TV-Y7:       Appropriate for children 7 and older
  • TV-Y7-FV: Programs in the Y7 category with more intense or combative fantasy violence
  • TV-G:         Appropriate for a general audience
  • TV-PG:      Parental guidance suggested
  • TV-14:       Parents strongly cautioned – probably not suitable for children under 14
  • TV-MA:      Mature audiences only

Many are unhappy with the V-chip because a lot of people don’t even know how to use it.  And networks tend to “go light” with ratings or risk scaring off advertisers.  [11]

Violent Content Research Act

Senator Jay Rockefeller Source:

Senator Jay Rockefeller

Senator Jay Rockefeller (also chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee) D-W.Va., introduced the “Violent Content Research Act” in January.

His aim is to get the National Academy of Sciences to study the effects of media violence.  Specifically, he wants them to look at the effect that violent programming has on child behavior. [12]

Congress should do everything we can to address gun violence.  We need comprehensive policies to fully protect our communities. This study is an important element of this approach.” [13]

Future of Content Regulation

When you boil it down, the content we see on television is determined by the green.  If it’s too risque for advertisers, networks will adjust to please them. If it’s too risque for the viewers (and their children), networks will adjust to please them.  Networks want plenty of happy advertisers; advertisers want plenty of happy viewers; and viewers…well what they want changes from minute to minute.  The challenge is keeping up.


[1] “Bill of Rights”

[2] “Regulating Television”

[3] “Obscene, Indecent and Profane Broadcasts”

[4] “Critic’s notebook: FCC vs. Fox, the Supreme Court decides”

[5] “Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, Inc.”

[6]  “Super Bowl F-bomb could put FCC in a bind.”

[7] “PTC Files Supreme Court Brief in Support of Broadcast Decency.”

[8] “FCC to target ‘Egregious’ Indecency Cases”

[9] “This Business of Television,” Third Edition; Blumenthal, Howard J. & Goodenough, Oliver R.; Billboard Books (2006).

[10] “Children and TV Violence”

[11] “A 15-year failure? Parents Television Council says TV content ratings are flawed”

[12] “Rockefeller Pushes Senate Bill Calling for Study of Violent Content”

[13] ”Gun Violence Legislation: Senate Bills Emerge With Bipartisan Support”


Broader Definition of Television

by Giancarlo Rulli

The “Fiscal Cliff” and the Future of Public Television in the U.S.

If we don’t have an informed electorate we don’t have a democracy. So I don’t care how people get the information, as long as they get it. I’m just doing it my particular way and I feel lucky I can do it the way I want to do it. – Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)


The so-called upcoming “fiscal cliff” on Capitol Hill once again has the annual government funds allotted to public television once again in the cross-heirs. Last year, the U.S. spent 430 million dollars to support the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, also known as the CPB. These funds which represented a mere .00012 percent of the 2011 federal budget, were spread across several public broadcasting platforms including PBS, NPR and other various public stations (Bingham, 2012). But that hasn’t kept PBS out of the political spotlight throughout this hotly contested election year. In the first presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer, “I’m sorry Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS, I actually love Big Bird. I like you too, but I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.” Lehrer, a longtime newsman and host of PBS’s arguably most well known news show “Newshour,” chose not to respond to the former Massachusetts Governor’s criticism. At the time, Romney’s vice presidential pick, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), was also a outspoken critic of federal funding for PBS. The Wisconsin Congressman had put provisions in his controversial 2010 budget plan, “The Ryan Budget,” to strip congressional funds to the CPB.

This recent push by House Republicans to strip federal money to public media comes at a very tough time for PBS because not only is PBS under the budget microscope in Congress, but also has received less private donations in recent years. According to the CPB, “between 2008 and 2009, non-federal support of public television stations fell by $260 million nationwide. In addition, for the past several years, Congressional funding has remained relatively flat, at about $400 million a year. For 2010, public radio and TV stations surveyed by CPB projected a 14 percent drop in revenue, due to state cutbacks and declines in corporate and philanthropic support and viewer pledges.” So the question arises, is public television worth the money?

“American” Trust

According to the vast majority of Americans, the answer is yes. In fact, 74 percent of American’s feel that the money PBS receives from the government, corporations, and individuals is well spent. According to a study published this February by Harris Interactive Trust QuickQuerry, PBS ranks number one in public trust at 26 percent. That far surpasses the second place finisher, the U.S. judicial system, which ranks at just 13 percent. The obvious next question arises, why do Americans feel they are receiving trustworthy news and information from their national and locally affiliated PBS stations? The prestigious Columbia Journalism Review stated that PBS and public media are, “held up as the potential savior of serious journalism, the place with the potential to tackle the tough topics—complicated revolutions in Arab lands and zoning board shenanigans alike—that an informed citizenry needs to function.”  Bill Kling, the former president and chief executive of American Public Media, says public broadcasting will eventually be “the last journalism standing,” (Jensen – 2011).

History of Budget Threats

From a historical standpoint, this isn’t the first time PBS and public media have been under fire from conservatives. During the 1970’s, members of the Nixon Administration “were dismayed” with the newly introduced network because of a “perceived liberal bias in news and information programs,” (Blumenthal-Goodenough, 2006). As a result, the growth of PBS was temporarily halted due to actions taken by the Administration and Congress to veto funding measures. These early actions aimed to stymie PBS ended up making it a “membership organization, funded largely by dues paid by locally owned and operated member stations,” (Blumenthal-Goodenough, 2006). With PBS becoming locally owned and operated, problems continue to this day on how public television structure their news and information. According to a recent Aspen Institute Study, “PBS’s national news and information programs are not produced by a single entity but by production companies or member stations in Washington, New York, Boston and Miami for distribution to other stations. Up to now, this has made it more difficult for the program producers to coordinate their efforts and bring their collective strengths to bear on major news stories such as elections or the economic crisis,” (Everhart, 2010).

PBS’ Bill Moyers (AP Photo/Ric Francis)

The Future

In conclusion, public television has the ability to play a important role in meeting the information needs of local communities. In order to survive long into the future however, public television will still need to require outside funding both on the federal and philanthropic level. It will also take collective leadership within PBS to embrace and utilize ever-expanding digital platforms. Signs of this transformation are slowing taking root in public television as this April, “NewsHour…quietly began streaming its newscast online live, for free, on,” (Jensen, 2011). Another recent example of PBS embracing online digital content was when “NewsHour” created the “oil widget,” which allowed people to view “an embeddable player that showed BP footage of the Gulf oil leak with a variety of counters that the user could select from to calculate how much oil was flowing. The oil widget went viral, with 12 million page views by the end of June, and was embedded on 6,000 web pages, (Jensen – 2011). As a direct result, the Columbia Journalism review points out “NewsHour” website traffic in the summer of 2010 ran “40 percent above the previous year,” (Jensen – 2011). This example of remarkable growth is something the PBS will continue to need to capitalize upon in the future. The fact remains, PBS can succeed in a rapidly changing digital age by fully embracing it instead of shunning new ways people access the news and media content. By building on existing strengths that has kept PBS going for decades, nurturing creativity, and developing a strong leadership strutter, public television can modify itself into public media service that meet the needs of the American people.


 Works Cited:

1) Bingham, A. (2012, October 4). Mitt romney can’t roast big bird with pbs cuts. Retrieved from

2) Blumenthal, H., & Goodenough, R. (2006). The business of television. New York, NY: Billboard Books.

3) Corporation for public broadcasting. Retrieved from

4) Everhart, K. (2010, December 13). Knight advisors urge reboot of public broadcasting . Retrieved from

5) Francis, R. (2002, January 1). People moyers. MOYERS PHOTO

6) Harris interactive poll charts. Retrieved from                                    CHART PHOTOS

7) Jensen, E. (2011, July-August). Big bird to the rescue?. Retrieved from

8) Neibergall, C. (2012, October 1). Presidential debate. LEHRER PHOTO

9) Paletta, D. (2012, August 11). What is the ‘ryan budget’?. Retrieved from

10) Pbs newshour. Retrieved from

11) WSJDigitalNetwork. (2012, October 3). Mitt romney loves big bird-presidential debate. Retrieved from