More Inflated FCC Indecency Complaints

by on September 9, 2009 · 27 comments

Over at Ars Technica, Matt Lasar does a nice job pointing out how the FCC’s quarterly indecency complaint totals have again been inflated by one group: the Parents Television Council. This is something Lasar has written about before and he’s one of the few journalists who continues to ask sharp questions about the ongoing manipulation of these statistics by PTC. As Lasar notes in his latest piece:

for the first quarter of this year, show the viewers relatively calm at 578 complaints in January, then 505 in February, followed by 179,997 in March? 179,997? Um, did we miss something? Did television really get that much more indecent in March? No worries. In these situations, we know what to do. We go over and check out the Parents Television Council‘s website. And sure enough, there’s a plausible instigator—a PTC viewer action alert crusade against a March 8 episode of the animated comedy show the PTC just loves to hate, Fox TV’s Family Guy.

This “complaint box stuffing” is something I wrote quite a bit about in the past, especially in my 2005 paper, “Examining the FCC’s Complaint-Driven Broadcast Indecency Enforcement Process.” As I pointed out there, “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.” Specifically, as I noted in that paper (as well as a Supreme Court filing with my friends at CDT), the FCC quietly and without major notice made two methodological changes to its tallying of broadcast indecency complaints in 2003 & 2004 that PTC  requested:

  • 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…”

As I have made clear before, I have absolutely no problem with the PTC, or any other advocacy group exercising their First Amendment rights to petition their government and make their views known. What I do have a problem with — a very big problem, in fact — is when one group so disproportionately influences the process, especially by changing the way complaints are counted. And I’m even willing to ignore the “robo-complaint” nature of their automated complaint-generation machine. After all, countless other groups use similar tactics today to flood government offices and agencies with thousands or even millions of digital form letters. But when you change the rules of the game to favor you and your preferred outcome, well, that’s just shameful.

What’s even more troubling about the way the FCC changed it complaint counting process to make the PTC happy is that the agency failed to provide the public official notice of these changes outside of some limited and quite confusing fine print in the footnotes of quarterly reports. Look as hard as you want at the FCC website and you will not find any press releases or summaries of these changes during that period. And there does not appear to be any mention of these changes in any speeches by FCC Commissioners or bureau chiefs then or since.  More shockingly, as far as I can tell, the FCC only made these methodological changes for indecency complaints, not for any other category of complaints that the agency receives!  Finally, and probably worst of all, these bogus numbers were then used by FCC officials and congressional lawmakers as supporting evidence for the supposed public outcry for more regulation of television and radio.

It’s an outrage, especially when you realize that the programs that the PTC wants censored are among the most popular on television, as I thoroughly documented in my paper.  In other words, they don’t speak for most of us when it comes to what we want to watch or listen to.  I hope the new FCC understands these bogus indecency complaint numbers do not reflect the wishes of most consumers.  Finally, those in the PTC or elsewhere who are offended by “The Family Guy” or other shows on television have plenty of tools and methods at their disposal to make sure those programs are not seen in their homes.  Please don’t try to impose your will on the rest of us when you have the tools at your disposal to do this job for you and your family.  Let’s not make Uncle Sam our National Nanny.

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