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Originally published Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 3:02 PM

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Is this the end of decency standards for broadcasters?

Guest columnist Alex Alben writes about the blurring of decency standards in broadcast television with the proliferation of cable stations and other venues for sharing content.

Special to The Times

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IT'S worth taking notice when a judge admits, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did in a U.S. Supreme Court hearing this month, that "one cannot tell what's indecent and what isn't." Her refreshing honesty brought back to mind Justice Potter Stewart's remark in evaluating a 1964 pornography case: "I know it when I see it."

Once again, the Supreme Court is tied up in knots over whether conduct on American television can be appropriately regulated for audiences of broadcast television. At the Billboard Music Awards in 2002 and 2003, first Cher and then Nicole Richie launched proverbial "F- bombs" before live television audiences. If these shows originated on cable, such vulgar language would be bleeped out, as watchers of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show have routinely come to expect and even celebrate. But broadcast television has different standards, owing to the fact that local television (and radio) stations apply for renewals for their right to use the public radio spectrum every five years.

Incidents involving a nude scene in a 2003 episode of NYPD Blue and Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction in the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show serve to remind us that the line between entertainment brought to us over the public airwaves and over private subscription services has blurred. Media companies, which own both broadcast and cable stations, fight indecency fines from the Federal Communications Commission, claiming there are no clear lines for language, nudity or violence on television and that government regulation amounts to restriction of their First Amendment rights.

Clearly, the Supreme Court did not give broadcasters adequate guidance when it ruled in 1978 that vulgar language and images may be subject to fine, especially if children are likely to be watching the program.

Parents, who used to be able to count on several hours of "family-oriented" programming between 7 and 9 p.m. each night, now don't know what to expect. Even when images are less than graphic, the adult themes of some shows suggest the R or even X ratings of movies we experienced growing up in an earlier generation.

The confusion of courts, broadcasters and the viewing public is understandable, but the remedies are less evident. Should we just give up on indecency standards for TV and expect, as Europeans do, to encounter graphic sex scenes when channel flipping? Should we strive to preserve pockets of entertainment that perhaps reflect the sensitivities of an older generation? How would we do this without bringing back censorship boards?

One difficulty here is that our laws originated in an era of single-channel experiences, while we now live in a multichannel media universe. For cutting-edge comic entertainment in the 1970s, for example, a viewer had to wait until Saturday evenings to tune in to the CBS hit "All in The Family." The program wasn't also available on cable, on-demand, on DVD, to the iPod and on the Internet.

Now, multiple networks deliver the same programs to us in different packages. No wonder some critics mock the effort to preserve some form of community standards on broadcast TV, which is primarily brought into the American home via cable. Heavily lobbied by media interests, most members of Congress opt to stay on the sidelines. Observers who raise the concept of "public interest" in broadcasting are put in the category of those who might have seen Babe Ruth play baseball.

In our era of media consolidation, the big media companies, which own broadcast television stations, largely self-regulate on issues of indecency and speech. These companies both reflect and shape cultural taste and, as attitudes shift, have gradually loosened up to depict more nudity, more foul language and more violence.

Those of us who raise warning flags are labeled "prudes" and told to simply turn off the TV or "switch the channel." But we should not yet be ready to throw in the towel on community standards for television, still a central medium in American culture.

Broadcasters have strong First Amendment rights, but also have responsibilities to the public at large to serve every audience in the community and need to demonstrate that "decency" is still a value worth preserving in our culture.

Alex Alben has worked in broadcast journalism and the high-tech industry. He is writing a book about digital culture. His email is

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