FCC tells ABC: No ifs, ands or butts


An episode of NYPD Blue first aired in February 2003 has resulted in an FCC fine meted out to 52 ABC-affiliated television stations. Language was not a problem, but footage of a woman about to enter a shower was. Each station was hit for 27.5K, for a total addition to the US Treasury of 1.43M, assuming the Notice of Apparent Liability moves forward to a full-flegeded forfeiture.

The stations participating in the hit are all in the Central and Mountain time zones. The program aired in the safe harbor 10PM time slot in the Eastern and Pacific zones. Only two ABC/Disney O&Os turned up in the FCC’s net, WLS-TV Chicago and KTRK-TV Houston.

The offending footage showed a rear-view of a naked woman, with brief side views of her breasts (the FCC’s full description is available under the click below). ABC contended that buttocks are "not a sexual organ," but the FCC countered that its position was supported by case law and common sense.

ABC also argued that there were relatively few complaints about the program, but the FCC countered that while ABC itself may not have been inundated, the FCC received "thousands of letters from members of various citizen advocacy groups."

One of those groups was certainly the Parents Television Council. "We are thankful that the FCC has finally taken a stand for children and families with this unanimous order," said PTC’s Tim Winter. "The delay in getting here has been frustrating, but we are delighted by the decision. PTC members and concerned citizens across the country spoke out against the nudity in the 2003 episode of NYPD Blue and today their pleas have been answered."

FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate weighed in on the NAL. "Our action today should serve as a reminder to all broadcasters that Congress and American families continue to be concerned about protecting children from harmful material and that the FCC will enforce the laws of the land vigilantly," she said. "In fact, pursuant to the Broadcast Decency Act of 2005, Congress increased the maximum authorized fines ten-fold. The law is simple. If a broadcaster makes the decision to show indecent programming, it must air between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM. This is neither difficult to understand nor burdensome to implement."

RBR/TVBR observation: Interesting timing here. This incident occurred almost exactly a year before Janet Jackson introduced a whole new level of toxicity into the indecency debate during the Super Bowl halftime show. Why did it take four years for the FCC to get around to it, when it could’ve been dealt in the relative quiet of 2003? And why do the opinions of even a million advocacy group members outweigh the opinions of many millions more who didn’t seem to find any problem with the footage in question, as ill-advised as it seems in the post Jackson-Timerlake world? It NAL also is released after the FCC made it through all of 2007 without issuing a single penny in indecency NALs, and while the Supreme Court mulls giving a listen to the FCC’s struck-down fleeting expletive case.

FCC description of offending scene
Here, in the Commission’s words, is the portion of the program the FCC found objectionable:
The complaints refer to a scene at the beginning of the program, during which a woman and a boy, who appears to be about seven or eight years old, are involved in an incident that includes adult female nudity. As confirmed by a tape of the program provided by ABC, during the scene in question, a woman wearing a robe is shown entering a bathroom, closing the door, and then briefly looking at herself in a mirror hanging above a sink. The camera then shows her crossing the room, turning on the shower, and returning to the mirror. With her back to the camera, she removes her robe, thereby revealing the side of one of her breasts and a full view of her back. The camera shot includes a full view of her buttocks and her upper legs as she leans across the sink to hang up her robe. The camera then tracks her, in profile, as she walks from the mirror back toward the shower. Only a small portion of the side of one of her breasts is visible. Her pubic area is not visible, but her buttocks are visible from the side.
The scene shifts to a shot of a young boy lying in bed, kicking back his bed covers, getting up, and then walking toward the bathroom. The camera cuts back to the woman, who is now shown standing naked in front of the shower, her back to the camera. The frame consists initially of a full shot of her naked from the back, from the top of her head to her waist; the camera then pans down to a shot of her buttocks, lingers for a moment, and then pans up her back. The camera then shifts back to a shot of the boy opening the bathroom door. As he opens the door, the woman, who is now standing in front of the mirror with her back to the door, gasps, quickly turns to face the boy, and freezes momentarily. The camera initially focuses on the woman’s face but then cuts to a shot taken from behind and through her legs, which serve to frame the boy’s face as he looks at her with a somewhat startled expression. The camera then jumps to a front view of the woman’s upper torso; a full view of her breasts is obscured, however, by a silhouette of the boy’s head and ears. After the boy backs out of the bathroom and shuts the door, the camera shows the woman facing the door, with one arm and hand covering her breasts and the other hand covering her pubic area. The scene ends with the boy’s voice, heard through the closed door, saying "sorry," and the woman while looking embarrassed, responds, "It’s okay. No problem."