What to do about obscene or indecent content on TV & radio

NCOSE Press Statement logo
By Robert Peters, President of Morality in Media

I.          Obscene programming

OBSCENE PROGRAMMING is prohibited (18 U.S.C. 1464 & 1468) on ALL radio and TV channels (broadcast, satellite and cable) 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  [To be obscene (shorthand definition), programming must depict “hardcore” sexual conduct in a patently offensive manner and, when taken as a whole, must appeal to the prurient interest and lack serious artistic, literary, political and scientific value.]   The U.S. Justice Department enforces federal criminal obscenity laws.  The FCC can institute civil proceedings in appropriate cases against broadcast licensees and cable operators.

A.        Cable & satellite TV

a.         Obscene programming is found primarily on pay cable/satellite pornography channels.  Some cable TV leased and public access channels have also aired obscene programming.

b.         In the 1980s, most cable systems did not offer pay TV pornography channels.  Because federal and state obscenity laws were not enforced, most cable and satellite systems now provided pay TV pornography channels.

c.         Hardcore pornographers often make two versions of their films.  One version depicts sexual conduct in graphic detail (nothing left to the imagination).  So-called “cable versions” are less explicit.  In the 1980s, graphic versions could usually be obtained only through the mail and in “adult businesses.”  Because obscenity laws were not enforced, graphic versions now air on most cable/satellite pay TV pornography channels.

B.        What’s to be done?

a.         Ask federal and state prosecutors to investigate your cable or satellite TV operator for possible violations of federal [18 U.S.C. 1468] and state obscenity laws.  A sample Letter to U.S. Attorney and Letter to State Prosecutor are available on the www.moralityinmedia.org website (Report Offline Obscenity)

b.         Ask your local cable franchise authority to insist on a clause in the franchise agreement to prohibit carriage of obscene programming [47 U.S.C. 544(d)(1)].

c.         Exert moral persuasion (by reasoning & shaming) and economic pressure (by dropping the service) on cable/satellite TV operators that provide pay pornography channels.  Form a committee in your church or other community group and educate others about the harms that pornography causes.  Collaborate with others.

II.        Indecent programming

INDECENT PROGRAMMING is regulated by the FCC only on broadcast radio and TV (18 U.S.C. 1464)  [To be “indecent,” broadcast programming must, in context, depict or describe, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs.]   The FCC does not currently have jurisdiction over indecent content on cable or satellite TV or radio.

A.        The Supreme Court set forth two rationales for regulating indecency in broadcasting

“First, the broadcast media have established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans…Indecent material presented over the airwaves confronts the citizen…in the privacy of the home…Because the broadcast audience is constantly tuning in and out, prior warnings cannot completely protect the listener or viewer…Second, broadcasting is uniquely accessible to children, even those too young to read.”   [FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. at 748-749]

B.        Problems with Federal Communication Commission (FCC) enforcement [in general]

a.         The FCC enforces the broadcast indecency law only between 6 am and 10 pm.

b.         The FCC does not now have regulatory authority over indecency on cable/satellite TV.

c.         The TV networks have initiated four lawsuits in the federal courts challenging the FCC’s enforcement of the broadcast   indecency law and the law itself.  Until these cases are finally decided, the FCC may be hesitant to enforce the law in some circumstances.

C.        Making complaints to the FCC about broadcast indecency

a.         When possible, tape the offending program or advertisement.  Parents TV Council [(800) TV-COUNTS;www.parentstv.org] may have a tape or transcript of broadcast TV programs.  If you don’t have a tape or transcript, write down in as much detail as possible what you saw or heard.

b.         Your complaint should include the program name (product advertised); a tape, transcript or detailed description of the offensive content (vulgarity, sex talk/action); time of day it aired; and station’s call letters.

c.         To make a complaint online, go to www.fcc.gov and click to “Enforcement” (under Bureaus & Offices); then click to “Broadcast of Obscene, Profane and/or Indecent Material;” then click to “How to File an Indecency Complaint.”

d.         Mail complaints to: FCC, Enforcement Bureau, 445 12th St., SW, Wash., D.C. 20554

e.         If possible, send a copy of your complaint (and any FCC response) to Morality in Media, 475 Riverside Dr., Ste. 1264, New York, NY 10115; [email protected]

D.        Cable television leased and public access channels

Cable operators have authority to regulate indecent programming on leased access channels [47 U.S.C. 532(c)(2)].  Franchising authorities have authority to regulate indecency on public access channels [see Denver Area Consortium v. FCC, 518 U.S. 727, 762-763 (1996)].

III.     Television sponsors (advertisers)

A.        Private businesses can refuse to sponsor any program or distribute any advertisement. The sponsored program or the ad itself does not have to be obscene or indecent.

B.        Most mainstream businesses are responsive to complaints.  On occasion, even a single complaint brings results.  Boycotts can be effective if enough people participate.

C.        Two organizations are leading efforts to put pressure on businesses that advertise on TV:  Parents Television   Council [(800) TV-COUNTS; www.parentstv.org] and American Family Association [(601) 844-5036; www.afa.net]

IV.       Pressure points to curb offensive programming

A.        Needed action from government

a.         U.S. Attorneys must enforce the federal obscenity law against cable/satellite TV.

b.         The FCC must be more aggressive in enforcing the broadcast indecency law.

c.         Congress should extend the prohibition on broadcast indecency to 12 midnights

d.         Congress should extend the prohbition on indecency to cable/satellite TV, unless channels are offered a la carte.

B.        Needed action from television industry

a.         Revitalize network standards departments

b.         Adopt a sound industry-wide programming code and stick to it

C.        Needed action from television sponsors

a.         Refuse to sponsor indecent and other irresponsible programming

b.         Encourage development of programming suitable for individuals of all ages

D.        Needed action from television viewers

a.         Tune in what is good; tune out what is bad; supervise children’s TV watching

b.         Make complaints to the FCC, TV Networks/Channels, and TV sponsors


Author: Robert Peters   02/04/2011

The Numbers


NCOSE leads the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation with over 300 member organizations.


The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has had over 100 policy victories since 2010. Each victory promotes human dignity above exploitation.


NCOSE’s activism campaigns and victories have made headlines around the globe. Averaging 93 mentions per week by media outlets and shows such as Today, CNN, The New York Times, BBC News, USA Today, Fox News and more.



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