The Death of the FCC Indecency Complaint

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As society has reached a consensus that there’s no way to control everything children see, the number of indecency complaints has decreased significantly. When Miley Cyrus twerked at the Video Music Awards last summer, the FCC received only 161 complaints (of course, as a cable channel, MTV doesn’t answer to the commission anyway). The moment became fodder for celebrity bloggers and morning show chatterboxes but was never treated as a problem that needed to be legislated away. The PTC dutifully issued a statement denouncing MTV for “sexually exploiting young women,” but no national outcry resulted. Perhaps not coincidentally, CBS never actually paid a fine in connection with Nipplegate—an appeals court ruled in 2008 and again in 2011 that CBS could not be held liable for the actions of contracted performing artists and that the FCC had acted arbitrarily in enforcing indecency policies. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2012.

So for [former Chairman of the FCC Michael] Powell, the halftime show represents “the last great moment” of a TV broadcast becoming a national controversy—the last primal scream of a public marching inexorably toward a new digital existence: “It might have been essentially the last gasp. Maybe that was why there was so much energy around it. The Internet was coming into being, it was intensifying. People wanted one last stand at the wall. It was going to break anyway. I think it broke.

“Is that all good? Probably not, but it’s not changeable either. We live in a new world, and that’s the way it is.

“They said the same thing when books became printed, right? They said it was the end of the world.

“But it wasn’t.”

-Marin Cogan in ESPN Magazine on how the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII changed live television and American audiences. Read more on football.

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Sam Stecklow is a contributor to Longreads' blog, an editorial fellow at The Morning News, a contributor to The Airspace, and has seen every episode of 3rd Rock From the Sun.
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