Ars on “Better FCC Indecency Complaints”

by on January 12, 2009 · 15 comments

Over at Ars, Matt Lasar has a piece about the need for better FCC indecency complaint statistics. He has been monitoring the wild fluctuations in indecency complaint tallies in recent years and wonders:

whether the agency’s indecency/obscenity statistics reflect spontaneous viewer response to the level of erotic/linguistic friskiness on TV or solely on the power of coordinated campaigns launched by groups like the Parents Television Council.

Indeed, PTC is the primary culprit. As I noted in my big 2005 PFF report “Examining the FCC’s Complaint-Driven Broadcast Indecency Enforcement Process”, “The PTC’s increasingly effective use of computer-generated campaigns against specific TV programs is a leading factor in explaining the large jump in indecency complaints in recent years.” The PTC has even taken credit for it themselves, as I noted in the paper.

How did the FCC’s indecency process get so screwy, and how did the PTC come to influence it so greatly? As I noted in that paper (as well as a Supreme Court filing with my friends at CDT), in recent years the FCC has quietly and without major notice made two methodological changes to its tallying of broadcast indecency complaints, both changes urged upon the FCC by a single advocacy group — the PTC — targeting broadcast indecency:

  • On July 1, 2003, the agency began tallying each computer-generated complaint sent to the FCC by any advocacy group as an individual complaint, rather than as one complaint as had been done previously. The advocacy group benefiting from that change had challenged the FCC to make the change by June 30th and boasted later that it was responsible for the FCC’s redirection, citing reassurances of FCC commissioners.
  • In the first quarter of 2004 — the time when the Super Bowl incident with Janet Jackson occurred — the FCC began counting complaints multiple times if the individual sent the complaint to more than one office within the FCC. This change, which had the capability of increasing by a factor of 5 or 6 or 7 the number of complaints recorded, was noted in a footnote of that quarter’s FCC Quarterly Report. The footnote acknowledged that “[t]he reported counts may also include duplicate complaints or contacts…”

For many years, the PTC has pressured the FCC to change their methodology to give greater weight to their computer-generated e-mail complaint campaigns. It appears their efforts paid off and now the PTC and other groups are essentially able to “stuff the ballot box” in terms of inflating indecency complaints at the FCC and potentially spurring increased regulatory activism as a result. In turn, these bogus numbers are cited in the press and in political statements by lawmakers when they are seeking to expand fines or regulations.

Unfortunately, even if Congress forced the FCC to fix these problems with the indecency complaint process, so long as the agency and that process exists there will be groups like PTC trying to use it to influence public policy and impose speech controls in this country. The millions of Americans who are perfectly happy with what they see on TV or hear on radio are never going to send a letter to the FCC saying as much. It’s only the hecklers that bombard the FCC with complaints and get them heard and acted upon, even if they only represent a minority viewpoint about video and audio programming.

Of course, these hecklers could just turn off those devices or use parental control tools and stratgies to deal with what their kids see and hear. Instead, those folks want to impose their will on ALL of us. Worse yet, they now are expanding their mission to include the Internet. Thankfully, we don’t have a Federal Computer Commission fielding bogus complaints about the Net.  At least not yet.

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