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FCC’s Decency Rules Scare TV Execs, Possibly Web Companies

When CBS announced it would air a documentary about 9/11, affiliates balked. The reason: profanity used by firefighters.
September 5, 2006

September 11, 2001.

For many Americans, that is our day that will live in infamy. We all know where we were when we found out. We watched in horror as the two towers fell in New York City. And, if you were like me, as you watched them fall, you had emotions pouring through you that are still mostly indescribable because there is nothing–nothing–in our lives that has any comparison.

As the fifth anniversary approaches, CBS announced plans to air 9/11, a documentary that was originally intended to be a record of the first day on the job for a New York City firefighter–before transforming into one of the few recorded histories of that day.

The film, as one might expect, contains graphic language. It is, after all, a record of the hell of that day.

However, the Federal Communications Commission may not see it that way. The last few years have been interesting for the First Amendment in this country, and the government agency in charge of regulating the nation’s airwaves has helped foster a “chilling effect” in boardrooms across the country. The FCC raised fines for “indecency” from $32,500 per action to $325,000, effectively causing many smaller television affiliates to reconsider airing movies such as Saving Private Ryan and now 9/11 because fundamentalist watchdog groups have threatened to flood the FCC with complaints, which could lead to crippling fines.

So what does this have to do with digital media? On the surface, nothing. It’s a story about television, right?

Not so much. With television companies openly embracing iTunes, YouTube (sometimes), IPTV, and other digital forms of distribution, I’m concerned that this type of zealous regulation (and, make no mistake, this is zealousness at its height) will begin to creep into emerging forms of digital distribution, locking down the pipes that carry information before they’ve truly formed.

YouTube, which offers videos for free, may be the most in danger. Other services, such as iTunes or the PSP videos, can argue that since they offer paid content, they can require adults to handle the buying. YouTube, though, has only basic restrictions for certain content–and it’s highly likely citizens who can’t see the 9/11 broadcast will find portions of the film online. Curse words and all.

And if these watchdog groups succeed in pulling content from the airwaves, what is the likelihood that they will stop there? My guess is they will begin to focus their crosshairs where people under 30 are increasingly turning for information: the Internet and Web.

I’m not much of an activist. I’m a bygones-be-bygones kind of guy, but in this case, I’ll be sending a letter to the CBS network, my local affiliate, and the FCC, thanking them for allowing me to watch 9/11 as it was meant to be aired. I hope you all have the same opportunity.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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