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TV networks uniting against FCC

In a move that seems certain to force a showdown over what comprises indecency on the airwaves, four TV broadcast networks and their affiliates announced Friday that they had united to challenge a Federal Communications Commission ruling that deemed language used in several of their shows indecent.

CBS, Fox, ABC and Hearst-Argyle Television filed notices of appeal in federal court in New York and Washington late Thursday and early Friday.

They are seeking to overturn a March 15 ruling by the FCC that found some broadcasts of the CBS News program “The Early Show,” the “Billboard Music Awards” on Fox, and ABC’s drama “NYPD Blue” to be indecent because they contained variations on two obscenities: what people on both sides refer to as the “F-word” and the “S-word.”

Of the offending incidents, all which aired from 2002 to 2004, those on CBS and Fox involved profanities that the networks said were blurted out spontaneously. Those on ABC were scripted.

None of the incidents cited in the appeals involved NBC, but the network filed a petition to intervene on behalf of the three other networks and their affiliates. NBC is waiting to resolve its own FCC complaints, including one involving U2 lead singer Bono, who uttered an obscenity while accepting an award on the 2003 Golden Globes.

The networks want the FCC to not only reverse its ruling, but also to establish clearer guidelines about what is indecent so that the rules can be more consistently applied.

In addition to going to court, the networks and affiliate groups representing more than 800 of the nation’s TV stations issued an unusual joint statement Friday, calling the FCC’s recent ruling unconstitutional and arguing that any profanities contained in the programs were “fleeting, isolated – and in some cases unintentional.”

“The FCC overstepped its authority in an attempt to regulate content protected by the First Amendment, acted arbitrarily and failed to provide broadcasters with a clear and consistent standard for determining what content the government intends to penalize,” the statement said.

The FCC quickly reaffirmed its ruling, saying it was supported by legal precedent.

“Over 20 years ago, the Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s ruling that George Carlin’s monologue about the ‘Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television and Radio’ was indecent,” said FCC spokeswoman Tamara Lipper. “Today, Disney, CBS and Fox challenged that precedent and said that they should be able to say two of those words.”

The Walt Disney Co. owns ABC; News Corp. owns Fox Broadcasting; CBS Corp. owns CBS; and General Electric Co. owns NBC. Hearst-Argyle is ABC’s largest affiliate group.

Ever since Janet Jackson exposed her breast during CBS’ broadcast of the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show, some parents groups have been lobbying the government to crack down on what they see as immoral conduct shown in a positive light on television.

Since then, station owners have struggled to understand what, exactly, will provoke an FCC fine, said one station executive who asked not to be named for fear of angering FCC officials.

Privately, network executives vowed that this week’s filings were the first of what will be many challenges they intend to file against the FCC in the coming months.