PTC Drives Spike In Smut Gripes

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After a steep drop in indecency complaints at the FCC in second quarter 2005, the number bounced back in the third quarter, thanks almost entirely to the Parents Television Council (PTC).

For the three months ended Sept. 30, indecency/obscenity complaints quadrupled to 26,185 from 6,161 logged during the previous three months. Almost all of that spike came in July (23,547), with only 1,716 complaints in August and 922 in September. According to PTC's Web site, the group filed a total of 23,542 complaints in July (10,775 against Fox and 12,767 against ABC), which would account for all but five of the FCC complaints for the month.

The quarter increase follows several quarters of large declines. Indecency and obscenity complaints against broadcast TV and radio had dropped from 157,016 in first quarter 2005 to 6,161 in the second quarter (PTC filed no complaints). The latter figure compares with 272,818 complaints in second quarter 2004.

The FCC doesn't routinely make the individual complaints public, but culprits in the third quarter appear to be programs on ABC and Fox. The PTC, whose members often complain in bulk via an online e-mail form on the organization's Web site, filed two complaints in July against shows on each network.

A MISSED EXPLETIVE

The first complaint, filed July 14, came after ABC allowed the f-word to slip by its screeners and into a broadcast of Live 8: A Worldwide Concert July 2. ABC conceded that 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 to file against the show.

Washington think tank Progress and Freedom Foundation is circulating a white paper arguing that 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,” says Adam Thierer, president of the foundation. “With these numbers now being regularly monitored and reported on, it is important that journalists, policy­makers, social scientists and others understand that the current numbers are flawed.”

COUNTING E-MAILS

In 2003, the FCC decided to count duplicate e-mail complaints submitted by different viewers as individual complaints. PTC, for one, had protested 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 TV-network–backed TV Watch, took the report as evidence 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.”

But PTC members were not the only ones concerned about indecency. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has been talking with cable execs and others about regulating their medium as well, and his Commerce Committee will hold an indecency forum at the end of the month to discuss the issue.

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