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F-Word 1, FCC 0

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Bono_lWherever Bono is today (Preparing to tout his fight against AIDS and third-world debt on Wednesday’s Nightline? Getting started on the new U2 album? Polishing up a tune for that Spider-Man musical?), I bet he’s smiling. I certainly know I’m wearing a broad grin after reading this morning that a federal appeals panel has struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s policy of punishing television networks when they broadcast “fleeting expletives” — a policy which began after NBC showed Bono (pictured) using the phrase “f—ing brilliant” onstage at the 2003 Golden Globes. (NBC wasn’t fined for that incident, since it predated the new rule, but laws passed two years ago by Congress meant that the commission could smack networks with a massive $325,000 penalty for each use of an “indecent” word.) The judges found that the FCC had “fail[ed] to provide a reasoned analysis justifying” this harsh new stance, adding that they “question whether the FCC’s indecency test can survive First Amendment scrutiny.” For me, at least, this amounts to stating the staggeringly obvious; the FCC’s constitutional authority to censor artists’ expression based on its own arbitrary notions of “decency” is highly dubious at best.

But this is also great news from the perspective of a pop-culture enthusiast, whatever your politics. Live awards-show broadcasts like the one that got Bono in trouble are boring enough as it is; the last thing we need is a capricious federal agency standing guard against split-second bursts of impolite language. Truth is, people who are mortally afraid of hearing what the FCC maturely referred to as “the F-word” should probably avoid watching live TV altogether. After all, there’s always the chance that someone might say something untoward or uncomfortable, even with punitive fines in place — hey, even if they don’t use taboo words. For the rest of us, that risk adds to the thrill of watching a live broadcast. Have you ever heard someone complain because an awards show had too many surprises?

The FCC did everything it could to restrict scripted shows, too, citing the occasional vulgarities uttered by Dennis Franz’ character on NYPD Blue — which, as fans will recall, were a significant part of the show’s widely praised sense of uncompromising realism. Ever wonder why the networks have so often lagged in the race to create shows that are as nuanced and compelling, as moving and as hilarious, as the ones on HBO? One reason is surely that cable stations are beyond the FCC’s reach. It’s just about impossible to imagine David Chase or Darren Star creating the The Sopranos and Sex and the City with a crew of censors hovering over their shoulders. (Actually, we don’t have to imagine, now that both shows are being syndicated in the voluntarily profanity-free environments of A&E and TBS. Those bowdlerized versions are watchable, sure, but I dare you to find a fan who thinks they’re half as good as the originals.)

Something tells me the FCC commissioners aren’t big Sopranos watchers, though. The commission’s chairman, Kevin J. Martin, bemoaned yesterday’s ruling in the New York Times: “He said that if the agency was unable to prohibit some vulgarities during prime time, ‘Hollywood will be able to say anything they want, whenever they want.'” Oh goodness, no! Martin apparently meant to convey a vision of some nightmarish dystopia. To me, it sounds more like a TV viewer’s paradise. Too much of today’s pop culture is overrun by stale, focus-grouped cliches. If the industry’s creative minds go out on a few more limbs, follow their wildest impulses once in a while — and, yes, use a dirty word or two — we’ll all get to enjoy an infinitely more exciting slate of new shows this fall.

So, PopWatchers, what’s your take on the new ruling? Have you ever been offended by a “fleeting expletive” on one of the networks? Do I deserve to be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for my horrifying, indecent view of the FCC?