Supreme Court to Broadcasters: ‘Broadcast TV is Living on Borrowed Time’

By Alex Weprin 

Yesterday the Supreme Court held oral arguments in a case regarding indecent content on broadcast television. The case, FCC vs. Fox Television Stations, is about whether fleeting expletives on an awards show, as well as brief nudity on “NYPD Blue,” can and should be regulated by the FCC. While Fox may be the defendant, the decision has implications for all of the broadcast networks, which provide their programming to viewers over the public airwaves… at least for now.

Justice Samuel Alito argued that the Court should not be wasting its time discussing broadcast TV. Why?

“Broadcast TV is living on borrowed time,” he said, much to the chagrin of the Fox lawyer. “It is not going to be long before it goes the way of vinyl records and eight-track tapes.”

“I’m sure my client is not thrilled to have you say that,” the Fox attorney replied.

Of course, what Alito was referring to was that Fox and the other broadcasters no longer only transmit their shows over the air, they also get beamed to satellites and cable boxes, and in some cases get streamed online.

Technically speaking news programs don’t have to worry about charges of indecency, as long as they are in the public interest. Sometimes, however, the line can be hard to see:

A lawyer for ABC, Seth P. Waxman, said the vagueness of the commission’s standards continued to cause problems, mentioning a pending complaint about coverage of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, “which included a statue very much like some of the statues that are here in this courtroom, that had bare breasts and buttocks.”

“There’s a bare buttock there, and there’s a bare buttock here,” Mr. Waxman said, gesturing around the courtroom and perhaps supplying the justices with another argument against television coverage of the Supreme Court.