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”


ABC Television Network

by Macy Jenkins


The American Broadcasting Company began in 1943, after previously operating as the NBC Blue Radio Network.   The first television broadcast was in 1948.  In 1996, The Walt Disney Company bought ABC, which is now a part of the Disney-ABC Television Group.    Corporate headquarters and network news are based in New York City, while programming is based in Burbank, California.

The Players

Bob Iger



Bob Iger

Chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company.

Iger began his career at ABC in 1974. Most recently, he acquired Pixar (2006) and Marvel (2009).  He directed the merger between Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. and The Walt Disney Company. [1]

Courtesy of




Anne Sweeney

Co-Chair, Disney Media Networks; President, Disney/ABC Television Group.

Sweeney oversees ABC Studios, the ABC Owned Television Stations Group, the ABC Television Network, Disney Channels Worldwide, ABC Family, SOAPnet, and A&E Television Networks.





Kevin Brockman

Executive Vice President, Global Communications, Disney/ABC Television Group.

Brockman oversees all corporate, news and entertainment communication efforts worldwide on behalf of the Disney/ABC Television Group.


Courtesy of




Rebecca Campbell

President, ABC Owned Television Stations Group.

Campbell is responsible for the company’s eight local TV stations and their digital assets in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, Raleigh-Durham and Fresno.

First Quarter Report

The Walt Disney Company’s media networks (which include cable and broadcast stations) increased by 7% in 2012, ending with $5.1 billion in revenue.  ABC Broadcasting revenue increased by 6% over the last year, going from $1.4 billion to $1.5 billion.  This comes after broadcasting operating income increased by $36 million to $262 million in 2012.  The increase in operating income was able to increase because of higher advertising revenues.  The amount of online advertising increased, as did advertising rates. [2]


Each of the broadcast networks has seen a decreased in ratings from last year.  As of March 24th, ABC is in fourth place (after CBS, FOX, and NBC) with a 26-week season average of a 2.3 rating.  ABC is down 8% from last season.  Among total viewers, ABC’s 7.8 million is second only to CBS’ 12.1 million viewers (CBS had the Superbowl and the Grammy’s, while ABC’s main event was the Academy Awards). [3]

Courtesy of


On Sunday February 24th, 40 million people tuned in to watch Seth MacFarlane host the 85th Annual Academy Awards ceremony.  It was the most watched Oscars since 2010.  And this year’s saw 1 million more viewers than Billy Crystal’s 2012 ceremony. [4]

Primetime Programming

In January 2013, ABC had television’s number 1 scripted program for adults 18-49, “Modern Family.”

In January 2013, ABC had television’s number 1 scripted program for adults 18-49,
“Modern Family.” [5]  Source:

Top Rated Shows: Modern Family,  Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Once Upon a Time, Dancing With the Stars, The Middle, The Bachelor, Castle, and 20/20.

On March 21, 2013, Grey’s Anatomy beat American Idol for the first time ever.  And ABC delivers its most-watched non Oscar week since November during the week of March 18th.

On March 21, 2013, “Grey’s Anatomy” beat “American Idol” in the ratings for the first time. And ABC delivered its most-watched non-Oscar week since November during the week of March 18th. [6]  Source:

New Shows – Winter 2013:

The Taste: The competitive reality cooking show premiered on Tuesday January 22, 2013.  The eight-episode season consisted of auditions where the judges blindly tasted food and eventually eliminated teams to find the winner.  The premiere earned a 4.0 rating but the spring finale raked in a mere 1.1.   Critics say The Taste is simply a less exciting version of NBC’s The Voice. [7] [8]

Zero Hour: The drama premiered on Thursday February 14, 2013.  It was the least-watched premiere for a scripted series in ABC’s history (1.3 rating/6.3 million viewers).  Two weeks later, it was canceled. [9]

Red Widow: The drama premiered on Sunday March 3, 2013 and was picked up for eight episodes.  It’s centered around a woman who discovered her husband’s secret business life after he is murdered.  The premiere earned a 1.5 rating and it’s currently the lowest-rated show on the network.  However, ABC hasn’t pulled the plug yet. [10]

Splash: The series premiered on Tuesday March 19, 2013 to an audience of 8.8 million and earned a 2.6 rating.  It’s ABC’s highest-rated reality TV premiere in two years and the highest-rated reality TV premiere since The X Factor’s Fall 2011 premiere. [11]

Source: zap2it

Cast of “Splash”.  Source: zap2it

How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life): The comedy premiered on Wednesday April 3, 2013.  It stars Sarah Chalke as a divorced mother who moves back in with her hippie parents.  The show premiered with a 2.9 rating.  It airs after ABC’s #1 show, Modern Family. [12]

Source: Slant Magazine

Source: Slant Magazine

(See the “How to Live with your parents…” trailer)

Family Tools: The comedy will premiere on Wednesday May 1, 2013 as a part of ABC’s Wednesday comedy line-up.  The series is centered on a man who returns home from the army and has to take over his father’s hardware business. [13]

The only new shows from fall 2012 to escape cancellation (so far) have been Nashville, Malibu Country, and The Neighbors.  

ABC Daytime

Daytime television as a whole is not what it once was.  The soap opera era is over and only four traditional American soap operas remain on the air across all of the networks.  Due to declining ratings, ABC canceled the long-running dramas All My Children in 2011 and One Life to Live in 2012.  The sole survivor is General Hospital, which airs at 2pm.

Source: webpronews

Source: webpronews

The only other daytime programming the network offers is The View at 11am and The Chew at 1pm.

ABC News

ABC’s news programming includes World News with Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America, Nightline, Primetime, 20/20, and This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

Good Morning America was the number 1 morning program in total viewers and in the Adult 25-54 demographic during the fourth quarter of 2012.  In fact, it marked the first time the program has won the Adult 25-54 demographic since 1994.

Source: Facebook

Source: Facebook

Nightline was the number 1 late-night program in total viewers and in the Adult 25-54 demo.

World News with Diane Sawyer beat CBS Evening News in fourth quarter ratings and saw its strongest fourth quarter performance since 2009.

Diane Sawyer has been with ABC News since 1989 and serves as the leading face of ABC's News Department.  Source: ABC News

Diane Sawyer has been with ABC News since 1989 and serves as the leading face of ABC’s News Department. Source: ABC News

Online and Mobile

Election Night 2012 was the most streamed live event in the history of ABC News. [14] Source: Sun Times

Election Night 2012 was the most streamed live event in the history of ABC News. [14] Source: Sun Times has a comedy web series that infuses recaps from the network’s programs with comedic situations.  The latest is called “Taye Diggs Destroys Hip Hop.”  Actor Taye Diggs leaves Private Practice and starts a career in the world of Hip Hop music. [15]

ABC was the first network to offer a mobile app (released in april 2010).  As of April 5th, the app had been downloaded 10 million times, there have been 200 million episode views and more than 1.3 billion ads run.  [16]

ABC's video player is the sixth most downloaded free iPad app of all time.  Source: ABC

ABC’s video player is the sixth most downloaded free iPad app of all time. Source: ABC

The Future

ABC still claims the number 1 scripted show, Modern Family, and has a large online presence.  But overall, in the era of “blinkandyoumissit,” the major networks have no time to rest before they plot their next moves.


[1] “Robert A. Iger”

[2] “The Walt Disney Company Reports First Quarter Earnings For Fiscal 2013”

[3] “2012-2013 Season: CBS Leads Among Adults 18-49 & With Total Viewers Through Week 26 Ending March 24, 2013”

[4] “Seth MacFarlane-Hosted Oscars Watched By 40.3M, Up From 2012”

[5] “ABC The Only Major Net to Grow Year to Year”

[6] “ABC Delivers Its Most-Watched Non-“Oscar” Week Since November”

[7] “The Taste’s Two-Hour Premiere Earned Solid Ratings”

[8] “’The Taste’ Ends First Season With A Sad Whimper”

[9]” ‘Zero Hour’ Canceled: ABC Pulls Anthony Edwards Drama After Three Episodes”

[10] “Red Widow: New ABC TV Series; Cancel or Keep It?”

[11] “Ratings: ABC Makes a Big Splash, Body of Proof Rises, Smash Dips, New Normal Drops”

[12] “’How to Live with Your Parents’ Opens Strong, ‘Modern Family’ is Wednesday’s Number 1 TV Show”

[13] “’Family Tools’ Cut Down To 10 Episodes: ABC’s Midseason Comedy Affected By ‘Dancing With The Stars’ Schedule”

[14] “ABC News surges into 2013 propelled by strong 4th quarter 2012 ratings.”

[15] “It’s No April Fools Joke: ‘Taye Diggs Destroys Hip Hop’ on – Video”

[16] “Disney/ABC App Downloaded 10 Million Times.”