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Indecency Complaints Quadruple in 3Q

After a big drop in indecency complaints at the Federal Communications Commission in the second quarter, the number bounced back big-time in the third quarter, according to the FCC's most recent quarterly report from the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.

For the three months ended Sept. 30, indecency/obscenity complaints quadrupled to 26,185 from 6,161 logged during the previous three months, though almost all of that spike came in July (23,547), with only 1,716 in August and 922 complaints in September.

The quarter increase follows several quarters of big declines. Indecency and obscenity complaints against broadcast TV and radio had dropped from 157,016 in the first quarter of 2005 to 6,161 in the second. That latter figure compared to 272,818 complaints in the second quarter of 2004.
One likely cause of the drop was that a number of major media companies -- including Viacom Inc., Clear Channel Communications Inc. and Emmis Communications Corp. -- settled indecency complaints with both dollars and pledges to crack down on content the FCC doesn't like, which includes the "F-word" in most instances, Janet Jackson's breast when viewers are expecting wholesome halftime entertainment and some Howard Stern.

The FCC doesn't routinely make the individual complaints public, but the likely culprits in the third quarter are programs on ABC and Fox. The Parents Television Council, whose members often complain in bulk via an online e-mail form on PTC's Web site, filed two complaints in July against shows on each network. (PTC had reportedly filed fewer than normal requests in the previous two quarters.).

The first complaint, filed July 14, came after ABC allowed an F-word to slip by its screeners and into a broadcast of Live 8: A Worldwide Concert July 2.

According to PTC, during a Who performance, the line "who the f___ are you" aired unedited. ABC conceded it missed the offending lyric in the East Coast feed, after catching other expletives before they made it to air, but says it edited out the lyric from the West Coast feed.

The second complaint was filed July 18 over an episode of Fox's summer psychological thriller, The Inside, which PTC said included themes of forced sodomy and S&M fetishes.

The FCC could get a few more e-mails about Fox in the fourth quarter if PTC decides to file against last week's episode of Family Guy, a ribald send-up of the FCC's indecency crackdown.

According to spokeswoman Kelly Oliver, PTC is still debating whether or not to file against the show.

And one more from the indecency file:

Washington think tank Progress and Freedom Foundation is circulating a white paper arguing the FCC has inflated the number of indecency complaints via an accounting change it made in 2003. That change, "makes it difficult to make accurate comparisons over time," said foundation Senior Fellow Adam Thierer.

"With these numbers now being regularly monitored and reported on, it is important that journalists, policy makers, social scientists, and others understand that the current numbers are flawed," Thierer said.

In 2003, the FCC decided to count duplicate e-mail complaints submitted from different viewers as individual complaints. PTC, for one, had complained that the FCC was undercounting those complaints by lumping them together, but the change was also one of keeping up with new complaint-filing technologies.

One FCC source pointed out that the change in methodology was also to help the FCC keep better track of its workload rather than for outside groups to better track complaints.

Jim Dyke, Executive Director of  the TV network-backed  TV Watch, took the report as evidence of of the power of PTC:  “It appears that the same activists who use overheated and inaccurate rhetoric to mischaracterize the debate over appropriate television have hijacked an outdated process to further empower their personal viewing preferences.”

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.