The FCC, PTC And Bogus Indecency Counts

from the the-indecent-thing-is-the-process dept

Three years ago, we wrote about the “roller coaster” of indecency complaints to the FCC. Basically, there are very, very few indecency complaints, until one particular organization alerts its members to all complain at once. What’s silly is that the FCC is often influenced by this, even though most of the people complaining never actually saw the TV content in question. What’s even sillier is that the FCC apparently (very quietly) changed its process to make it easier for this group to stuff the ballots.

Let’s start with constant FCC watcher, Matthew Lasar, who notes the latest roller coaster swing:

How come the latest stats, in this instance 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.

Yes, Family Guy is apparently destroying the morals of America, and the FCC must do something. But even more troubling is just how PTC was able to get so many votes. You see, it didn’t really like the way votes were counted in the past, so it pressured the FCC to change the way it counts to make it that much easier for PTC to stuff the ballot box in massive quantities to put extra pressure on the FCC to act. Adam Theirer explains the changes:

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.

Even more troubling, Theirer notes, is that the FCC gave no public notice of these changes, hiding them in footnotes to reports after-the-fact (and wording the footnotes in confusing ways). And it’s not like this was a change across the FCC — it was specifically designed to further the political goals of the PTC:

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.

Regulatory capture in action. Hopefully, the new administration and the new FCC recognizes this and stops trying to have the government act as a censor for a small group of people offended that people don’t know how to use the “change channel” or “power off” features on their televisions.

Filed Under:
Companies: fcc, ptc

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Comments on “The FCC, PTC And Bogus Indecency Counts”

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Ryan says:

Regulatory capture in action. Hopefully, the new administration and the new FCC recognizes this and stops trying to have the government act as a censor for a small group of people offended that people don’t know how to use the “change channel” or “power off” features on their televisions.

Which they won’t to any significant degree if the last eight months have been any indication, and they don’t really have any compulsion to do so. A better goal would be that the general public recognizes this and stops trying to have the government legislate and regulate everything in existence.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

Just the Biz...

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.

Isn’t that just business as usual? Standard gov/lobbying (same diff) tactic for “proving” some stupid law or other needs to be passed.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Almost all life’s problems can be solved with proper application of explosives. 😛

another mike (profile) says:

historical data invalid

Just remember when you go to plot out trends, your historical data is only valid back to the last methodology change. If the FCC tries to look at TV decency further back than 5 years (or less), they don’t have the valid data to do that. As for what data they do have, a simple count isn’t sufficient, as any statistician will tell you. Because they admit to counting multiple data points, they’ll have to do some numerical analysis to get usable numbers.

On a different note, how did all their members see the “obscene scene”? Do they just have a description of the clip? Or did someone record it and post it on their site so they can all be equally offended?

TheStupidOne says:

Well Family Guy ...

The show in question is incredibly offensive. From blatant displays of lesbianism to ridiculing the disabled to rampant alcoholism. Even things like bestiality are not so subtly implied (though never shown) with regularity.

The political incorrectness and extreme lack of christian morals are totally unacceptable and the perfect reason for me to watch the show.

PS – It is very well known that family guy is a very naughty show so why are those parents letting their kids watch it?? it is clearly an adult cartoon. Try parenting your own kids and stop trying to get the government to do the breast-feeding for you.

PRMan (profile) says:


With today’s rating systems, there is little need to complain to the FCC over every little thing. If you don’t want your kids to see stuff, use the V-Chip in your DVR or TV.

The problem I have is, for instance, the Super Bowl, a G-Rated show with sexually explicit content (that I thankfully skipped anyway, because I don’t like Janet Jackson or Justin Timberlake). If Viacom wanted to rate the halftime show TV-MA, so be it, fine, my TV would block it. Their viewership would go way down, but that’s up to them.

But the FCC has nothing to do with the TV rating system, so parents can’t complain when, for instance, Firefly was rated TV-PG, despite having content that is NOT appropriate for kids in any way. (Newer showings have been marked TV-14 at times.)

Ironically, almost nobody makes TV in the PG range, despite constant proof that PG movies and TV-PG shows (or less) get the highest viewership.

Just look at cable ratings, where shows like iCarly, True Jackson, Spongebob, sports and TV-PG shows like Monk, Leverage, Burn Notice, etc. destroy the competition routinely.

American Idol and Amazing Race routinely get massive ratings on regular TV.

If you look at the top 50 grossing movies of all time, almost 40 of them are PG or PG-13 for kids (Spider-Man, Iron Man, etc.).

I wonder how many “gritty cop shows”, “gory medical shows” and “sleazy woman shows” we’ll get yet again this season…

Josh - To common a name. This is me. (profile) says:

Re: Ratings...

Actually PRMan, the V-Chip is not very usefull at all.

At our house we don’t have a cable subscription, or any TV subscription for that matter, or OTA TV. What we do is run Netflix via the Xbox for our dose of hollywood entertainment. We would only add movies to the Instant Queue that we would want our kids to watch. Then all of a sudden Xbox and Netflix changed how they do things. They made it so not only can you see the instant queue but you get recommendations of off what you have recently watched, and you get to see new releases for all of main categories (action, comedy, etc.) of movies.

Since my wife and I don’t put movies we want to watch in the queue, as this would make shows/movies available to our children that we do not want them to watch, we did not like this change. Because now the recommendation will put out movies based of of say, Terminator, or Leverage, or CSI, all perfectly great movies/shows, but not what I want my children watching yet. So I decided to enable the rating option on the Xbox. Set it to TV-G – TV-PG for TV shows and up to PG for movies. Locking out unrated and not-rated shows/movies/games. You would think this would work, right? Wrong.

My four year old loves the Bob the Builder shows, guess what they are rated, Unrated, guess what the latest Sci-Fi “C” (mabye even F) movie is rated, Unrated. Awesome. Now I can either put a block on that locks out my sons shows, as well as shows I don’t want him to see, and his games, such as Lego Indiana Jones, Lego Star Wars, and Kung-Fu Panda, or not lock out anything.

Now, this is really only a hardship in that I have to remember a stupid Xbox password (no it can’t be alphanumeric, that would be to easy) that has to be a combination of buttons/controls on the controller, but it should not be an issue. And of course he (my 4, almost 5, year old) already cracked the first password I picked. All he did was mash random buttons until he got it to work. Then the watched what he pushed until he guessed it and remembered it. And they tried telling me he wasn’t ready for kindergarten this year. psssha. Kindergarten wasn’t ready for him, and won’t be…Ever.

If the rating system is going to work it must be applied to all movies/shows. If National Lampoon wants to make an unrated version of one of their skin flicks, fine. But mark it Unrated – Adult or something. Don’t punish those of us that try to make the technology work for us but are foiled by stupid companies that try to get around the technology.

Oh well. I’ll end this rant now. But just keep in mind that just because I want to watch a given movie/show doesn’t mean I want my children to as well. And if the rating system is screwed up that I can’t set it easily, well, it needs to be fixed.

Chargone (profile) says:

i can see the case for counting individuals separately rather than a group as a single complaint.

i can not see ANY legitimate reason for counting the same person twice because he sent complaints to two places.

it’d be sorta like counting a voter once for every polling booth he attended [hint: you’re not allowed to do this! :D]

Buckimion says:

Ballot stuffing II

As an ardent follower/poster to a number of internet fan boards dedicated to Family Guy, we had numerous reports of other fans that had went to the PTC web site to register their complaints about the PTC’s actions only to have their e-mails collected and used to fill out complaint forms AGAINST Family Guy. The fans found out about it when they started getting e-mails back form the FCC thanking them for their concern. In at least one reported case, a member apparently had his e-mail submitted 3 times with different names attached.

Bob V (profile) says:

State of the art methodology

So as I went through the site I looked at the report on the worst and best shows. In the event that the remotes batteries died, no one in the house can figure out how to use the buttons on the front of the tv and a freak elecrical surge has somehow fused the plug to the wall their guidence is handy.

I did find part of the report particularly amusing. In discussing the State of the art (their header not mine) they explained how it all worked.
PTC Entertainment Tracking System:
State-of-the Art Television Monitoring System

Here’s how it works: Every evening PTC VCRs record
every prime-time series on ABC, CBS, Fox,
NBC, the CW, Ion, and MyNetworkTV, as well as
original programming on basic cable, including MTV.
The following day, the PTC’s entertainment analysts
don their headsets, turn on their computers, grab their
remote controls and set about the arduous work of
transcribing every offensive word, every instance of
sexual innuendo and every act of violence in detail.
These reports are fed into the PTC’s custom-designed
computer program.

If only there was some way to take all that video and record it digitally and somehow turn the speech to text. Maybe one day technology will find a way to make their job easier.

Bradley Stewart (profile) says:

Not Another Naked Person!

Well I used to believe that all these people who filed sexual indecency complaints with the FCC are just a bunch of cranks. Fortunately a good friend of mine straightened me out on the subject. These individuals who file all these complaints are all actually born fully dressed. They go through life not only showering but sleeping in their clothing as well. Yes its true they have never actually seen a naked human body.I now armed with this new though shocking information understand and am more sympathetic to their point of view.

Ben (profile) says:

These people complain about certain television broadcasts because they believe they might be offensive. They actually spend most of their time finding ways to prevent people from seeing these shows. They base their principles around the children, we cannot let them see this stuff, its bad.

Mike, your response is: “Hopefully, the new administration and the new FCC recognizes this and stops trying to have the government act as a censor for a small group of people offended that people don’t know how to use the “change channel” or “power off” features on their televisions.”

I get it, I do. In fact I agree. I would, however, take it further. What did you do as a kid? Watch TV all day? I doubt it. I know my parents did not even have a TV. My Dad worked on his parents farm and played outside. My mother played with her sisters. They raised me (I am 25 as of ’09) to watch only limited television and allowed videogames on Wednesdays only. The rest of/majority of my time was spent playing outside, building stuff, helping my Dad around the farm, and helping my mother with cleaning. I do not regret any of my childhood, I had it good. I am not even close to being overweight, I am creative, I have a good family, and I have close friends.

The thing is, we don’t need television, it is a single (of many) form of entertainment and relaxation. Censorship in this case is pointless, if you do not like this particular style of wasting your spare time, pick another. If you insist on using television but do not like the options, get up off your lazy *** and create another option. Complaining will not fix it, it will merely get you different stuff to complain about.

I waste my time playing video games and reading. See? More options.

The Infamous Joe (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If you insist on using television but do not like the options, get up off your lazy *** and create another option.

Are you suggesting that someone start up their own country? Because, ya know, the FCC is a federal thing, so if I want a channel of 24hrs/day, 7 Days/week squirrels gnawing on children’s eyeballs, I’d have to leave the country to make/air it. Even more so if I wanted to use real squirrels (or less so if I wanted to use fake children eyeballs.

Furthermore, attempting to get off my lazy ass (note how I didn’t self-censor myself) and starting up my own country would probably be seen as an act of treason.

Stop inciting people to commit treason, please, Ben.

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