Nicole Richie of the Fox reality show "The Simple Life," prepared to announce a category of nominees on the Billboard Music Awards on Wednesday night. Standing alongside was her co-star, hotel heiress Paris Hilton, who warned: "Now Nicole, remember, this a live show, watch the bad language."
Richie paid no attention, using a vulgar substitute for the exclamation "shoot." The broadcast, which employed a five-second delay to catch obscenities, bleeped out the offending word. But Richie was one step ahead. Before Fox could hit the "dump" button again, she described her time on "The Simple Life," in which she and Hilton live with an Arkansas farm family. She repeated the word and then added one for good measure.
"Have you ever tried to get cow [expletive] out of a Prada purse?" Richie said. "It's not so [expletive] simple."
Richie's bad words come two months after a little-noticed -- and, many say, nonsensical -- ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that appeared to sanction what government officials called "the F-word," as long as it is used as an adjective. Critics say the decision further unleashed the potty mouths they believe are taking over radio and television.
Members of both parties in Congress are demanding that the FCC crack down harder on broadcasters, while some FCC members want to toughen the penalties the agency imposes. At the same time, lawmakers are grappling with the fact that the government's limited enforcement powers over the public airwaves do no apply to cable channels, which are grabbing more and more viewers.
Parent groups and socially conservative organizations that monitor broadcasts agree that television and radio content is getting racier and raunchier. Members of the Parents Television Council, a group that monitors television broadcasts and whose celebrity advisers include Pat Boone and Jane Seymour, have filed more than 85,000 complaints about broadcast indecency and obscenity at the FCC this year.
Fox apologized for Richie's words. "With the immediacy of live television comes the possibility of action or dialogue that may be offensive to some viewers," the network said in a prepared statement. "We experienced a failure in the system designed to prevent such an occurrence and are working to ensure it does not happen again."
Richie was reading from a TelePromTer, but sources said the words in question were not in the script. The show's producers probably urged her to be "edgy," said one source, expecting that any obscenities would be caught by the delay.
Prime time obscenity
Richie's language was heard on WTTG-5, the Fox network's station in Washington, and by millions of people on the East Coast and in the Midwest, during what are known as the prime-time television family hours of 8 to 10 p.m. Fox West Coast producers managed to catch the obscenities.
The FCC, charged with enforcing indecency and obscenity standards on the public airwaves, issued a ruling in October regarding the utterance of the "F-word" during a Fox broadcast in January.
During the live Golden Globe Awards broadcast in January, Bono -- frontman for the Irish rock group U2 -- received an award and exulted, "This is really, really [expletive] brilliant!"
The FCC's enforcement bureau ruled that Bono's utterance was neither indecent nor obscene because it did not describe a sexual function.
Sens. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and 11 Republicans, including Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), introduced a resolution last week blasting the FCC's ruling on Bono.
The resolution does not demand further FCC regulations against indecency but would direct the agency to consider revoking the broadcast licenses of television stations that repeatedly air indecent material. It also says the FCC should fine programs for each indecency during a show, not levy one fine for the entire show. In other words, if the FCC were to fine Fox for Richie's language, it should impose two fines, one for each curse word, a plan the FCC is likely to adopt.
Eight dirty words
Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) wants more. He has proposed legislation to effectively overturn the FCC ruling, blasting the agency for relying on a "technicality."
"You want to split hairs? I'm going to shave your head," Ose said, referring to his legislative remedy.
Ose and Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.) last week introduced a bill that lists eight words and phrases that could not be spoken on broadcast television without punishment.
In a letter to the Parents Television Council after the enforcement bureau's ruling, FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell wrote: "Personally, I find the use of the 'F-word' on programming accessible to children reprehensible." The five FCC commissioners are reviewing the ruling by David H. Solomon, chief of the enforcement bureau.
The FCC "is doing an indecent job of enforcing indecency," Commissioner Michael J. Copps said in an interview. "If we send one or two of the most egregious cases to license renewal hearings, we'll see it improved quite a bit," meaning that if broadcasters are threatened with losing their licenses, the airwaves would be cleaned up quickly.
First Amendment advocates say the FCC's indecency standards are not only unconstitutional but are too vague to enforce. Much depends on context. For instance, National Public Radio's broadcast of the John Gotti organized crime wiretaps, peppered throughout with the "F-word," were never ruled indecent. But the FCC seems unsure of how to apply its own standards, said one First Amendment lawyer who has asked the FCC for an overhaul, saying the agency risked having a court reject the rules.
"The problem is the indecency standard is not a standard. It's basically a test for what people find distasteful and that is entirely in the eyes and ears of the beholder," said Robert Corn-Revere, a lawyer with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Washington. "Now we have a growing number of instances where the [FCC] has had to correct itself or has others looking over its shoulder."
Radio is also under increasing scrutiny. This week, the FCC fined Detroit radio station WKRK-FM $27,500 for airing a listener discussion of sexual practices and techniques.
Copps, who dissented from the majority on the WKRK action, said the fine was insufficient and that the FCC should have started a hearing to revoke the station's license. Commissioner Kevin J. Martin said the station should have been fined $27,500 for each of the nine determined instances of indecency on the WKRK broadcast.
The FCC's decision on Bono's language was quickly spoofed by "South Park," the sometimes-vulgar series starring cartoon children on Comedy Central, a cable channel owned by media giant Viacom Inc., parent of CBS.
In the episode, a teacher is shown saying that students can use a common swear word "only in the figurative noun form or the adjective form." The students, like many lawmakers, are puzzled.
Martin played the "South Park" clip to an audience at the annual meeting of the Institute on Telecommunications Policy & Regulation last week in Washington, apologizing for its content. "There is something wrong when our agency draws technical lines that even the people 'on the edge' find laughable," Martin told attendees.
Staff writer Al Kamen contributed to this report.