Britain’s Ofcom, the closest equivalent of the FCC in the United States, will attempt to implement something that’s eluded it’s American counterpart for years: provide language- and context-specific examples of what can and cannot be broadcast over the UK’s airwaves.
The new crackdown from the government-approved (although not government-run) Office of Communications specifically targets radio broadcasters. It comes on the heels of revamped television guidelines published in September 2011, after numerous complaints of performances on the UK version of The X Factor.
According to The Guardian, Ofcom recently began policing the radio airwaves after a Black Eyes Peas concert broadcast live on BBC Radio 1 featured multiple utterances of the f-word, which is banned outside the UK’s watershed (or in US terms, “Safe Harbor”) time frame. They also listened to an appeal on a violation from a much smaller broadcaster, Scotland’s Brick FM:
Among recent examples of breaches of these rules was the airing by Scottish community radio station Brick FM of the song More Punany by reggae artist Dr Evil at 3pm. It contained the lyrics “last night I had a crazy threesome” and “I like to see the girls in the sexy bikini ni ni/Want to take my chilli and push it between ni ni”, as well as “I like pun-na-na-na-ni even if it’s a virgin”.
The broadcaster claimed that “punany” referred to a sandwich – a panini, a claim that was roundly dismissed by the regulator, which said it was slang for a woman’s genitalia.
In the United States, content broadcast between 10pm – 6am falls under the so-called Safe Harbor period. Although still fairly conservative compared to other countries’ guidelines, Safe Harbor allows broadcasters to air content that would normally be considered indecent. (Content considered obscene is never allowed to be broadcast.) Ironically enough, Safe Harbor was first instituted in the US after New York station WBAI broadcast a version of George Carlin’s infamous “Seven Dirty Words” routine. Following a complaint from a listener, and a series of appeals from both the station and the FCC, the Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the FCC, due to the fact that the broadcast came during a time when children could have been, and according to the complainant, were, listening. But it also instructed the FCC to allow indecent material to be broadcast during a time when children are not likely to be listening; this time frame was decided to be 10pm – 6am. This isn’t an uncommon practice as dozens of counties have their own watershed time frames; it’s interesting to see how the watershed designation varies greatly from country to country.
Regarding the new regulation of radio broadcasts, Ofcom stated:
“[We take our role] in protecting children from offensive language on the radio very seriously. We are concerned that there have been a number of recent cases where offensive language was broadcast, some at times when children were particularly likely to have been listening…[w]e intend to publish guidance by the end of the year to clarify the rules in the broadcasting code.”
Even with the designation of Safe Harbor in the late 70’s, the FCC has never clarified what exactly can and cannot be broadcast over terrestrial radio between 6am and 10pm. So if Ofcom successfully publishes a complete report to clarify broadcast regulations across the entire United Kingdom, I would a) be completely surprised that a government organization would be able to create invariable rules regarding content and context before the end of 2011 and b) frankly, I’d applaud their efforts. In the US, CBS and the FCC are still bickering over a fine because of Janet Jackson’s breast nearly eight years after the split-second “wardrobe malfunction” took place. The main reason for the continued volley of the “nipplegate” case is, as reported in the Bloomberg article linked to above, because the FCC’s definition of indecency has always been, and continues to be, pretty gray:
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled in 2008 that the fine should be voided because the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s policy on indecency in broadcasting was arbitrary. The U.S. Supreme Court asked the panel to review its opinion after a ruling in a case involving News Corp. (NWSA)’s Fox Television revived the issue.
I’m skeptical that Ofcom could create specific regulations that would be accepted by both large- and small-market stations, and especially skeptical that they can complete this mission within the next two months. However, I’m curious to see the language they identify as indecent, and the fines associated with each offense.