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Networks, Stations Challenge FCC Indecency Ruling

Four TV broadcast networks and their affiliates have filed court challenges to a March 15 Federal Communications Commission ruling that found several programs "indecent" because of language.

ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, along with their network affiliate associations and the Hearst-Argyle Television group of stations, filed notices of appeal in various federal courts, including in Washington D.C. and New York. Some were filed late Thursday and the rest Friday morning.

The move represents a protest against the aggressive enforcement of federal indecency rules that broadcasters have complained are vague and inconsistently applied. Millions of dollars in fines have been levied based on those rules.

The appeals challenge the FCC's finding that profane language was used on the CBS program "The Early Show," in 2004, incidents involving Cher and Nicole Richie on the "Billboard Music Awards" shows broadcast by Fox in 2002 and 2003 and various episodes of the ABC show "NYPD Blue" that aired in 2003.

The FCC did not issue fines in those cases because the incidents occurred before a 2004 ruling that virtually any use of certain expletives would be considered profane and indecent.

While none of the cases involved NBC, the network filed a petition to intervene on behalf of the other networks and stations.

The networks and affiliate groups, representing more than 800 individual stations, issued a rare joint statement Friday calling the FCC ruling "unconstitutional and inconsistent with two decades of previous FCC decisions.

"In filing these court appeals we are seeking to overturn the FCC decisions that the broadcast of fleeting, isolated -- and in some cases unintentional -- words rendered these programs indecent."

The networks and stations said the FCC "overstepped its authority" and acted arbitrarily in not giving the networks a clear standard for what content is objectionable.

FCC spokeswoman Tamara Lipper said Friday that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 20 years ago that comedian George Carlin's monologue on the "7 dirty words you can't say on television and radio" was indecent.

"Today, Disney, Fox and CBS challenged that precedent and argued that they should be able to air two of those same words," Lipper said. "We are reviewing their filings."

The Walt Disney Co. owns ABC.

In three of the cases being appealed, the FCC found that violations occurred during live broadcasts. A contestant from the CBS show "Survivor: Vanuatu," for instance, used a variation of the "S" word when referring to another contestant on "The Early Show" in December 2004.

The FCC found the use "indecent," but did not issue a fine because "our precedent at the time of the broadcast did not clearly indicate that the commission would take enforcement action against an isolated use of the 'S-word,"' the FCC wrote in its March 15 order.

In the case of "NYPD Blue," the FCC found that the show's use of a variation of the "S" word was indecent because the episode aired at 9 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones. The use of the word after 10 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific time zones was not objectionable, the FCC found.

The networks and affiliates Friday said they objected to the "growing government control over what viewers should and shouldn't see on television."

The group said parents already have the ability to block certain programs by using the V-chip and various other parental controls.