Supreme Court rejects FCC fines for brief nudity and expletives: What does this mean for TV?

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We have Janet Jackson to thank for the term 'wardrobe malfunction'

You might be hearing fewer bleeps on live TV in the near future: The Supreme Court today rejected the Federal Communication Commission's ability to impose fines on TV broadcasters for allowing brief nudity and expletives to make it to air, calling the FCC's current rules on the matter overly vague.

The case stems from broadcasters like Fox and ABC fighting back against a stricter set of guidelines regarding obscenity on broadcast TV that the FCC adopted back in 2004. The new rules empowered the commission to fine TV affiliates for broadcasting even momentary incidents of nudity and obscenity, like Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" in front of an audience of 100 million viewers during the 2004 Super Bowl or Bono uttering the F-word at the 2003 Golden Globes.

But the high court ruled today that the FCC didn't give the broadcast networks proper notice of its new guidelines before levying fines, and that the rules were too vague to enforce. "Because the commission failed to give Fox or ABC fair notice prior to the broadcasts in question that fleeting expletives and momentary nudity could be found actionably indecent, the commission's standards as applied to these broadcasts were vague," said the court's ruling, backed by an 8-0 vote.


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Now that doesn't mean that broadcast TV will soon become a free-for-all filled with bare breasts and four-letter words, however. The ruling only applies to "fleeting" incidents; the FCC can still punish broadcasters and affiliates for sustained nudity and expletives in scripted programming. And since the court chose not to rule on the First Amendment implications of the guidelines, the FCC is free to simply rewrite its rules and submit them to broadcasters with plenty of notice before resuming enforcement.

But in the meantime, we're guessing that live TV broadcasts like the Super Bowl and the Oscars -- typically the most-viewed broadcasts of the year, incidentally -- are free to air in real time once again, without that annoying five-second delay tacked on so that networks can scramble to bleep out a word or pixelate out someone's naughty bits.

In fact, we're wondering if we'll still hear that familiar bleep when a celebrity lets a swear word slip during an awards show. After all, if the FCC can't punish networks for fleeting obscenities, what's the point of paying a guy to keep his finger on the "bleep" button? (Great, now we have to add Bleep Button Guy to the ranks of the unemployed.)
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