• U.S.

Video: Midnight Blue: An FCC time limit for raunch

2 minute read

When should youngsters be tucked away in bed, safe from the corrupting influence of raunchy radio and off-color television shows? After midnight, the Federal Communications Commission determined last week. In a clarification of its newly enunciated guidelines on “indecent” programming, the commission ruled that broadcasters can air such material between 12 midnight and 6 a.m. without fear of FCC censure. Reason: those are the hours when children are not likely to be in the audience.

In recent years the proliferation of “raunch radio” personalities like Howard Stern, the acid-tongued New York disk jockey, has raised a public outcry over broadcast vulgarity. Last April the FCC responded by altering its definition of what constitutes indecent programming. Under the old guidelines a program was deemed indecent only if it used one or more of the “seven dirty words” made famous in a comedy routine by George Carlin. The new ruling broadened the standard to include anything that depicts sexual or excretory activity in terms that are “patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.” Under FCC policy, a TV or radio station faces possible fines and even the loss of its license if it airs such material when there is a “reasonable risk” that it will reach children. But not until last week did the FCC specify acceptable hours. (Outright “obscene” material, such as hard-core pornographic movies, is banned at all times of day.)

In setting up a safe harbor for indecent fare late at night, the FCC satisfied few interested parties. Paul McGeady, general counsel for Morality in Media, complained that the decision will open the floodgates to post- midnight smut: “There’s no reason that raunch-radio persons won’t become raunch-television persons.” Broadcasters and civil libertarians, meanwhile, continue to object that the commission’s definition of indecency is distressingly vague. Most network and local station officials insist that their standard on what is permissible will not change because of the ruling. Still, it could open the way for more explicit radio conversation in the wee hours, more uncut movies on post-midnight TV, and perhaps even a few more naughty words sneaking by the censor on Late Night with David Letterman.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com