LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - During a particularly unbridled episode of Fox’s “American Dad” in January, Stan, well, gave “full release” to a racehorse.
That shenanigan was duly hit with a fine from the Federal Communications Commission. But five years ago, it wouldn’t even have aired. Fade whatever is left of the family hour: It’s about to get even racier out there.
Primetime TV this fall is going to be chock-a-block with even more blatant sexuality and raunchy language. It’s a trend that’s been a long time coming and is now accelerating. This week, the FCC’s regulations on indecency were struck down by a federal appeals court that termed them “unconstitutionally vague,” essentially loosening strictures against profane language on the small screen.
And it’s not just about those fleeting expletives. The CW has been upping the quotient of sexy goings-on on “Gossip Girl” and its updated “90210”; CBS turned a blind eye, as it were, to a contestant caught topless on “Survivor” with the naughty parts blurred. And now we’re bracing for couples doing it on “Friends With Benefits” on NBC; Kathy Bates smoking pot on “Harry’s Law” (and she plays a lawyer!), also on the Peacock; and a CBS sitcom starring the irrepressible William Shatner titled “$#*! My Dad Says.”
Said Andrew Schwartzman, head of the Media Access Project: “There’s no question that this decision is going to mean more (sexual content on television).” The appeals court opinion, if upheld, could stymie the FCC in its ability to put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to the f-word and such; the court all but begged the watchdog to clarify and simplify its rules on such issues.
Within networks’ standards and practices units, the decision was met with a collective sigh of relief. As one longtime network standards expert put it: “We have been living in an unbelievable netherworld of ambiguity and uncertainty with an amazing backlog of cases pending, when the culture, our society as a whole, has moved on. This new ruling, if it’s upheld, lifts a cloud of uncertainty. It will make it easier to interpret the rules and not have to second-guess everything we want to put on air.”
One reason the floodgates have opened -- and this came long before the court ruling -- is the incessant pressure from the Internet, including the increasingly out-there postings on social-media sites.
Another reason is the huge bite that cable -- which has never been under FCC regulations -- has taken out of the broadcast ratings pie, partly because it has been able, in shows as varied as “Saving Grace,” “Rescue Me,” “The Shield” and those on Adult Swim, to be more profane and provocative.
On broadcast TV, reality TV shows such as “Big Brother,” “Temptation Island” and “The Bachelor” have built their success around titillation of one sort or another.
Said Shine International president Chris Grant, who licenses such shows as “The Moment of Truth” and “The Biggest Loser” around the world: “Reality TV already has pushed the envelope, long before scripted, but there still are limits. And right now, with ad dollars harder to come by, we have to consider their point of view on these things.”
Official word this week from the major networks is that their policies toward indecency and profanity won’t change. Executives are adamant that they will continue to be sensitive to their national viewership, which means not just allegedly sophisticated types in New York and Los Angeles.
“We still have viewers who expect a certain level of content on our network,” one executive said. “I don’t think you’re going to see any change. For one thing, this will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court. For another, we have the ability right now after 10 p.m. to do whatever we want, and you don’t see that stuff. If we were going to do it, why wouldn’t we have already done it before?”
Advertiser concerns in any case always act as a tamp to the most outlandish outré situations or innuendoes. Not that there isn’t going to be push-back.
Dan Isett, director of corporate affairs at the Parents Television Council, suggests that some groups will not take the ruling lying down. “The court was extremely misguided,” he said. “It’s a slap in the face to parents and families -- not to mention 70 years of jurisprudence about the publicly owned airwaves.” (The FCC is likely to appeal this week’s decision.)
And this being an election year, there’s almost always a moment during the fall when a passel of politicians suddenly becomes focused on just how debased Hollywood has become, and with a new TV season full of suggestive content, the target is hard to resist.
This week’s ruling could be construed, several sources suggested, as a rebuke to Bush-era attempts to define obscenity and tighten rules against it. It doesn’t mean there should be no standard, just that it has to be better defined.
So how hard and how fast might the nets push the limits? Schwartzman, of the Media Access Project, said that the effect of the latest ruling is “to give networks greater freedom before 10 p.m., subject to the restrictions of the marketplace.”
He added: “They’re already much more aggressive about trying to get stuff in. They’re always saying: ‘Look what cable does! It’s not fair. We can’t sell against that.'”
Naturally, creative types want the same kind of freedom on broadcast TV that they have on cable and the Internet. Others were more conservative in their assessment, suggesting that tape delays and bleeps will remain part of the landscape and that there will be hesitation in Hollywood until there’s a definitive ruling on this week’s decision.
“The further the nets go, the more push-back they’ll get from advertisers who are sensitive to that kind of content as well as from watchdog groups,” Horizon Media senior vp Brad Adgate said. “It will be a slow, steady pace until they hit a place where they can’t go any further.”
Meanwhile, there are three major indecency cases pending. One is the appeal in the Second Circuit over a 2003 episode of “NYPD Blue,” which showed seven seconds of a female rear end and generated FCC fines for ABC stations. A second appeal is the 2004 Super Bowl boob-flash case involving Janet Jackson. That incident went to the Supreme Court but was remanded to the appeals level. The third involves the Fox reality show “Married by America,” which focused on outrageous bachelor and bachelorette parties -- with pixilated nudity.
No decisions in these cases are likely until the Supreme Court rules on the appeals court’s overturn of the FCC rules.
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