Although courts have held that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned, the FCC prohibits stations from airing such material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children might be watching. The same rules apply to swear words, while material defined as obscene is prohibited at any hour. (By contrast, the FCC does not regulate violence on TV.)
After fining stations $440,000 for indecency violations the previous year, the newly emboldened FCC slapped radio and TV stations with a record $7.9 billion in indecency fines during 2004. The agency also toughened its policy by permitting fines for each indecent utterance on a broadcast, rather than a single fine for the entire show.
For many members of Congress, this wasn't enough. The U.S. House in 2004 overwhelmingly passed a bill that would raise the FCC's maximum indecency fine from $32,500 per violation to $500,000. Under the bill, a station found guilty of three violations could lose its license.
The Senate has yet to pass the bill, but broadcasters are terrified. Some stations have edited soldiers' language from news reports on the Iraq war.
"License revocation is the death penalty for a broadcaster. And no broadcaster is willing to run that risk," said Bruce Reese, president of Bonneville International, which operates Salt Lake City's KSL-TV, testifying last month before a Senate committee.
"There are differences between those who have a live slip-up after taking reasonable precautions . . . and those who purposefully push the envelope," Reese added.
Those envelope-pushers? They mostly are on cable, which unlike broadcast TV is exempt from FCC regulations. Broadcasters think this double standard is unfair, and conservative groups such as the Parents Television Council are lobbying Congress to extend federal oversight to cable and satellite TV providers.
Pro-family groups also want cable TV companies such as Comcast to offer channels a la carte instead of in packages, so parents can order the Disney Channel without getting, say, Comedy Central's "South Park."