The dirty words that started the ruckus were fleeting, but their consequences for television have been long-lasting.
At the December 2002 Billboard Music Awards, Cher waved her "Lifetime Achievement" trophy and said, "People have been telling me I'm on the way out every year, right? So (expletive) 'em." At the Golden Globes the next month, U2 lead singer Bono accepted an award by saying, "This is really, really (expletive) brilliant." At another Billboard Awards in 2003, TV star Nicole Richie used expletives as she joked about removing cow manure from a purse.
As the Federal Communications Commission was reviewing viewer complaints about the incidents, Janet Jackson's breast was exposed during a Super Bowl halftime show on Feb. 1, 2004. The next month, the FCC, in an unprecedented move, said that even a one-time use of vulgarities associated with "sexual and excretory functions" violated indecency standards. It cited NBC for Bono's remarks, then Fox Television for those by Cher and Richie.
The FCC's stance has inspired a legal battle — now on the Supreme Court's doorstep — over how rigorously the government can police what's on TV.
The larger questions surrounding the dispute: As broadcast TV pushes the limits of sexual content to compete against its racier and unregulated cable competitors, should an occasional expletive be allowed? Or can the FCC completely stamp out what it views as verbal smut on broadcast television, in the name of family-friendly programming?
The Supreme Court soon will decide whether to wade into the dispute and, for the first time since 1978, dictate indecency rules for the airwaves. No matter what the court does in the case pitting Fox against the FCC, the battle could lead to new standards for broadcast networks.
Already, the FCC's tough stance could be changing what Americans see on live TV ...
Read more here. What is arguably most concerning about this trend is the potential chilling effect on what can currently be shown on US television. Again, from USA Today's report:
The last time the Supreme Court reviewed the FCC's power to curb indecency, in 1978, it rejected a First Amendment challenge to limiting the hours that broadcasters could air "indecent" material.
The 1978 case arose over a New York City radio station's airing of comic George Carlin's "seven dirty words" monologue.
Carlin repeated seven words that referred to various sexual and excretory functions during a 12-minute routine that aired at 2 p.m. on Pacifica Foundation's FM station.
The court upheld the FCC's policy sanctioning the broadcast because it occurred between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when indecency is forbidden for radio and broadcast television.
In its decision, the court said it was not ruling on the broadcast of "an occasional expletive."
Today, the FCC's tougher approach casts uncertainty across network programming.
Read more here.