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Records show North Carolinians’ gripes about radio, TV
View FCC Indecency Complaints from WNC in a larger map. Click on icons to view complaint details.
The latest Super Bowl left some viewers seething, and not just those who cheered for the losing team. The source of the extra ire was yet another controversial halftime performance.
Madonna headlined the show, but singer M.I.A. stole the spotlight with a gesture thrust before NBC’s cameras. The “performer flipped off America by middle finger during halftime and the FCC should come down on them hard,” a Forest City, N.C., resident wrote in a prompt complaint to the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC, which regulates U.S. broadcasters and is awaiting an imminent Supreme Court decision that will determine its powers to crack down on indecency, fields frequent complaints about all kinds of shows and media outlets, from all over the country. The decision will be issued this summer, and perhaps as soon as this week.
The kinds of objections the nation’s top court will rule on are common. “The Commission receives hundreds of thousands of complaints each year alleging violation of the restrictions on obscene, indecent, or profane programming,” an FCC web page notes.
The flash of M.I.A.’s finger echoed far and wide, according to a Muckrock.com report that mapped nationwide complaints to the FCC about the incident.
Such public venting about broadcasts often spikes around the time of the Super Bowl, but it’s a practice that goes on year-round. In the 14 months leading up to the M.I.A. matter, North Carolinians logged 193 indecency complaints with the FCC, according to documents obtained by Carolina Public Press through the Freedom of Information Act. (See a selection of the complaints from Western North Carolina below.)
Most of the complaints had nothing to do with the Super Bowl, though. And none of them led to sanctions against N.C.-based broadcasters, it appears. An FCC spokesperson refused to answer questions about whether any had led to enforcement actions, and no such actions have appeared in the public record.
Still, the complaints are uniquely revealing. Read together, they offer a sampling of the many and varied ways the state’s media consumers find offense from broadcasts, and the seething gripes they sometimes send in response.
Everybody’s a critic
The FCC invites anyone to sound off on broadcasts that offend. It even has a toll-free number and online portal set up to field them.
“The FCC receives many complaints and comments that do not involve violations of the Communications Act or any FCC rule or order,” the agency stressed in a letter accompanying the documents released to Carolina Public Press. “Thus, a complaint or comment does not necessarily indicate any wrongdoing by any individuals or entities named in the complaint or comment.”
Regardless of how the FCC responds to complaints, the agency’s North Carolina file offers indications of what exactly riles those who live here.
Here were the top-five criticisms from North Carolina, with representative complaints from WNC:
Too much objectionable material on TV: More than 140 of the N.C. complaints criticized things seen on television, including M.I.A.’s finger, a Bill Maher rant on HBO, a Lady Gaga performance on American Idol, MTV’s Skins, and various other shows and commercials.
“A guest on Morning Joe called the President of the United States a DICK and it was not bleeped!” an MSNBC TV viewer in Alexander complained via e-mail. “I’m totally offended by the word dick.”
Radio talk shows that push it: Twenty N.C. radio listeners took the time to complain about what they heard, calling the words either profane or politically unacceptable, and sometimes a mixture of the two.
Stephanie Miller’s irreverent, left-leaning show, for example, took some hits.
“Every eight to ten words on the show gets bleeped so we won’t know what they’re saying! This show is nothing but Howard Stern light!” a listener in North Wilkesboro complained.
“Speaking of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan for the U.S., ‘she would like to wipe her ass with it,’” another complaint from North Wilkesboro alleged about Miller’s show.
It may or may not have come from the same person as the prior complaint did; the FCC blacks out the names of complainants in publicly released documents, so there’s no telling.
Songs that push the limits: Ban-worthy words show up in plenty of songs, according to the 14 N.C. residents who complained about alleged musical malfeasance
“Song is obscene,” a Hendersonville resident griped about Rihanna’s hit “S&M” before adding a transcript of the lyrics, which include such lines as “Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it.”
“My teenage son was in the car when this came on. Can not believe that this is allowed to be played at 8 a.m. and throughout daytime hours when children are listening,” the complaint read.
Violence on TV: Ten N.C. residents found television too violent.
A complaint about a commercial for the show Tosh.O came from Maggie Valley.
“In the commercial, the host of the show being promoted turns into an animated character, then pulls out a pistol and shoots a baby, and then vomits into the baby carriage,” the complaint said. “I was shocked, appalled, and disgusted.”
Taking the Lord’s name in vain: Seven of the complaints objected to perceived blasphemies.
“I am not a prude and I completely understand freedom of expression, etc.,” someone wrote from West Jefferson. “However, why on Earth are words like asshole and shit bleeped out in all T.V. shows, but throwing around G-Dammit or G-Damn (is) perfectly acceptable? It’s sickening. That’s all.”
With enforcement in limbo, a key Supreme Court ruling is pending
In the past, the FCC responded to such complaints by following a lengthy procedure for judging whether broadcasters should be fined for crossing the line. See an FCC chart of the process here. [PDF]
Enforcement of the rules has tapered off in the face of legal challenges. The latest test of the FCC’s content restrictions is now before the Supreme Court, which is slated to issue a ruling any day now.
The case, Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations Inc., et al, has pitted national broadcasters against the FCC’s enforcement authority, asserting that the agency’s current restrictions are arbitrary and violate the Constitution’s free-speech protections.
Whatever the resolution of the case, the FCC will likely field more complaints about indecency, from North Carolina and elsewhere, and try to regulate broadcasters with ever-shifting criteria.
UPDATE: On June 21, the Supreme Court issued its ruling, which sided with the broadcasters against the FCC. The FCC’s enforcement authority remains essentially the same as it was before, however. See this Associated Press story for details.