WASHINGTON -- First, a federal appeals court struck down the FCC's broadcast indecency policy that regulated TV obscenities. Then, the former FCC chairman who enforced the policy said he has had a change of heart and now believes curse words on TV deserve "full First Amendment protection."
With television perhaps on the verge of becoming even more coarse and vulgar, what's a parent to do?
A number of companies in recent years have sold products to help families customize movies and TV programs to their liking, but they're getting more attention now in light of the court's ruling. A device called TVGuardian mutes foul language on television and DVD movies, while another device, the ClearPlay DVD player, not only mutes language on DVD movies but also skips objectionable scenes. Both companies recently announced new models.
"Those of us who have been around a little bit longer tend to remember when most movies were PG at the theater. On TV, you didn't hear any foul language," Britt Bennett, president of TVGuardian, told Baptist Press. "Now the whole landscape has changed."
On July 13 a three-judge panel of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals' overturned the FCC's indecency policy, ruling that the commission was wrong to find Fox Television in violation when a series of fleeting f-words were said on live TV in 2002 and 2003. The judges also said -- without prodding -- that they thought the Supreme Court's 1978 FCC v. Pacifica Foundation case, which provides the foundation for regulating broadcast content, should someday be reversed.
The Hollywood Reporter warned that in light of the court ruling, "Primetime TV this fall is going to be chock-a-block with even more blatant sexuality and raunchy language. It's a trend that's been a long time coming and is now accelerating."
TVGuardian was a leader in its niche industry for years but fell behind when high definition television grew in popularity. Although its older models could not filter HDTV, its newest model -- due out in August -- can. TVGuardian also is releasing a standard definition model for customers who do not need a high definition filter. It now is the only product on the market that filters television programs. It searches for foul language in closed captioning and simultaneously "mutes" the volume; it does not filter live programming.
Bennett said too many families have set up a "moral double standard" in their home.
"If you invite me to your house for dinner and you've got kids there and I start using Jesus' name as a curse word and using all sorts of foul language, you'll be like, 'We don't use that language in our home.' But then people finish dinner, they walk into the living room, and they're essentially inviting people who speak like that into their home," he said.
The court's ruling had plenty of fans.
Michael K. Powell, who was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission when it found Fox in violation of the indecency policy, wrote a column for The New York Times applauding the decision and arguing that the FCC's decision was a mistake. He said he had joined the FCC's ruling against Fox "with reservations."
"It is time now for the Supreme Court to revisit its half-century-old decision that broadcasting alone is undeserving of full First Amendment protection," Powell wrote, noting that the Supreme Court's opinion was handed down in an era without cable, satellite and the Internet. "... If the case for lesser speech protection for broadcasting was ever sound, that case is eviscerated today by the sheer abundance and accessibility of other media sources, which enjoy full constitutional protection. We cannot have one First Amendment for broadcasting and another one for every other medium."
The Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman called the FCC policy "censorship," asserting that the "FCC and its supporters seem to think Americans desperately need government assistance to protect themselves and their children against an onslaught of filth."
"But why?" he asked. "Since broadcasters have an interest in not alienating their audiences, they are bound to exercise discretion."
But that doesn't seem to be the case with this fall's lineup, where NBC is promoting a sexually charged comedy called "Friends With Benefits" and CBS is advertising a comedy, "$#*! My Dad Says," that is bound to push the envelope.
Chapman argues parents can fight back by "deploying V-chips" that are found in all new televisions and are intended to block programs with objectionable content, but critics say the technology relies on a network self-rating system that doesn't work. A 2007 Parents Television Council study of 546 hours of primetime broadcast programming found that two-thirds of the shows had objectionable content without the proper warning label.
TVGuardian's Bennett said he's never considered the V-chip a viable option.
"I can already decide to block out the whole program by not watching it in the first place," he said. "So, for me personally, the V-chip was not a technology I used. I can already turn it off."
Although TVGuardian allows families to watch TV programs and DVD movies without foul language, it does not block all objectionable content; for instance, violence and sexuality are seen, uncensored. There currently is no product that skips all objectionable content on TV as it is aired, but some families have chosen to wait until their favorite programs come out on DVD and watch them on a ClearPlay DVD player, which uses downloadable "filters" to skip objectionable scenes -- such as bloody, violent content -- and mute foul language. The company has filters for hundreds of movies and TV programs, including "24" and "Lost."
ClearPlay and TVGuardian both rely heavily on Internet sales. ClearPlay is not sold in any mainstream stores, and TVGuardian won't be either. TVGuardian was sold in Walmart several years ago but will use a different marketing model this time, working with ministry partners. There also is a rental option.
"Not everybody believes in the need for this but those that do feel very passionately about it," Bennett said.