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in Filmmaking
on May 8, 2006

William Triplett in Variety reports on a truly alarming development: the levying of fines by the FCC to broadcasters whose program content they deem not justified by story needs.

The background: the FCC has issued $3.5 million in fines to 100 CBS stations for their airing of an episode of Without a Trace that included “two brief scenes suggesting a teen sex party, which the commission said was ‘unnecessary’ to the story.” CBS has filed a complaint, arguing “that this is a new assertion of authority that constitutes a ‘deep intrusion into the editorial process.'”

The article continues:

For the FCC to decide what is or isn’t necessary to a storyline “places the government at the heart of the editorial process, a role the commission previously avoided. This is a sharp break from the past,” filing said. The papers then quote a 1970 FCC ruling that “there can be no governmental arbiter of taste in the broadcast field.” Subsequent FCC actions hewed to that line.

In a press conference following the release of the omnibus package of indecency rulings in March, FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin affirmed a de facto editorial authority, saying that, in addition to evaluating other factors, “We look at how integral the (material is), how easy it could’ve been to have the same effect without using (that material)” (Daily Variety, March 20).

“Such content and viewpoint-based judgments are beyond both the competence and constitutional powers of the commission,” the opposition papers said. The fines “suggest that the commission has embraced the role of ‘super editor’ for the nation’s broadcasters.”

Broadcasting Cable magazine has more, specifically on another case of the FCC fining broadcasters over specific content issues. In this case, stations broadcasting Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues were fined by the agency over the expletives contained in the interviews with the bluesmen.

Scorsese was specifically defending the “Godfathers and Sons” installment of his series, directed by Marc Levin, whose broadcast on KCSM was fined for its use of the f- and s-words.

“The language of blues musicians often was filled with expletives that shocked and challenged America’s white dominated society of the forties, fifties and sixties,” [Scorsese] told the commission.

“To accurately capture the essential character of the blues music and the subculture in which it originated and flourished, it was important to preserve in the film the actual speech and discursive formations of the participants,” he said. To do otherwise, would be “‘whitewashing’ the blues.”

In an editorial also published in Broadcasting and Cable, Patrice Maines of the non-profit Media Institute calls upon the creative community to stand up for free speech by opposing these FCC actions as well as other recent encroachments on the public’s right to receive unfiltered news and expression.

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