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Matthew Alice:

Watching a Family Guy episode tonight, I noticed things that there is no way the FCC would have let radio stations get away with, yet TV seems to get by doing. Why is that?

-- TH, online comment

Ah, another adorable quirk of the Bush administration. The FCC turns from fuzzy bunny to Tasmanian devil. The subject's a little complicated, but basically the FCC responds to viewer/listener complaints -- more like hired guns than vigilantes. Before 2001 the FCC received more nasty letters about radio stations than TV, but even then they only recorded a few hundred complaints a year. Fast forward to the six months from January through June of 2006: 327,198 complaints (about more than 1100 individual programs), and TV programs outnumbered radio two to one. This obviously reflects the creation of "decency" groups that sponsor massive FCC complaint mailings. Even SpongeBob has been a target.

Radio was hit with some nasty FCC fines several years ago, and critics of the government claim it has had a "chilling" effect on programming, especially since the on-air talent as well as the broadcasters were fined. But since the Janet Jackson Super Bowl hijinks, attention seems to have turned to television. A week or so ago, CBS and Fox scored a big victory in a federal circuit court when the judge ruled against the FCC, saying "fleeting expletives" in prime time (specifically, Cher's and Nicole Richie's spontaneous F-words at the Golden Globes) were not indecent. The court's opinion was that this new, improved FCC has departed radically from the historic patterns of enforcement that broadcasters have relied on but haven't offered any specific new guidelines to help broadcasters censor themselves. Recently, Bush raised the maximum daily penalty for decency violations to $3 million, so it's not a small-stakes game anymore.

And nervous TV stations have been doing more self-censoring. Even Stewie's bare butt has been fuzzed out in some Family Guy reruns, although it ran uncensored the first time around. On the up side, though, Fox rejected a piece of advertising that showed a glimpse of Mickey Rooney's butt. (He's at least 150, so I think showing his butt on the airwaves would probably be covered by some public health ruling anyway.) Would Dave Chappelle's abundance of poop and fart jokes be censored on radio? ("Excretory" structures and functions, not just sexual, are covered by decency standards.) The descriptive words might seem more jarring than the pictures. But my guess is the FCC just hasn't gotten around to hammering all the TV shows considered indecent, so the restrictions might seem one-sided. Oh, and P.S., our local Fox affiliate, Channel 6, is a Mexican-licensed station, so it's not under FCC regulation anyway.

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