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Broadcast Complaints Down, FCC Says

The FCC received about half as many broadcast indecency and obscenity complaints in the first quarter of 2005 compared to the previous quarter, according to a new quarterly report released this week by the commission.

The number of television and radio indecency and obscenity complaints dropped from 317,833 in the fourth quarter of 2004 to 157,016 in the first quarter of this year.

The FCC attributed the drop to “the decline in the number of complaints received in connection with e-mail or write-in campaigns directed at specific radio and television broadcasts.”

The 2005 first-quarter total pales in comparison with the 693,080 indecency and obscenity complaints filed during the same period last year, when CBS’ aired Janet Jackson’s live “nipple flash” at the Super Bowl.

Broadcasting-related complaints were down in all other complaint categories, except for accessibility, which was unchanged at 16.

Meanwhile, cable and satellite-related complaints are up, increasing from 132 in fourth quarter 2004 to 718 in first quarter 2005. A rise was seen in all of the categories the FCC uses to classify cable and satellite complaints.

The biggest category jump was in the programming category, which increased from 39 complaints in fourth quarter 2004 to 502 in first quarter 2005.

The programming category is where the commission files objections to pay TV content, as well as consumer complaints about channel choice or program availability.

The FCC does not regulate cable and satellite for obscenity and indecency like it does for broadcasters, though Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has led a push to apply such standards to pay TV.

The impact of orchestrated e-mail campaigns, which urge viewers to lodge complaints, were muted in the first quarter of 2005, but their impact can still be detected.

Of the 157,016 complaints filed in that period, more than 138,000 were filed in January, when indecency watchdog group Parents Television Council launched an effort to protest a Dec. 31, 2004, episode of CBS' Without a Trace that included a teen-orgy scene.

In mid-February, the group mounted a similar campaign against an episode of CBS' CSI about a man obsessed with infantilism who throws himself out a window. The commission received 14,480 complaints that month.

But in March, when no high-profile PTC campaigns were launched, just 3,884 complaints were filed.

Melissa Caldwell, director of research and publications for Parents Television Council, says she is hesitant to give broadcast networks too much credit.

Noting that many live broadcasts now air on tape delay and scripted shows seem to be strategically edited to fall just short of indecency boundaries, she says:  "I think they're treading very carefully."