Why Is TV Censored?

What is acceptable to broadcast on TV varies by country. A Canadian citizen traveling to the U.S. for a vacation would likely be surprised at the amount of violence shown on some programs. The same would also hold true for an American citizen in Canada for displays of sex and nudity. In the United States, public opinion is split on TV censorship. Why has TV been so heavily censored compared to the Internet and traditional print media?


The FCC, or Federal Communications Commission, has a far-reaching mission to promote broadband Internet and other forms of digital communication while fostering a competitive telecommunications industry. TV censorship is one of the agency's least important roles, but it typically attracts more attention.

Who doesn't remember the 2004 Superbowl halftime show with Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson? For one blink of the eye, Janet Jackson's nipple was exposed to TV viewers, and the FCC fined CBS for over half a million dollars. In 1973, George Carlin was reported for swearing repeatedly in his television special, and the case went the whole way to the Supreme Court.

TV isn't the FCC's only target. Throughout the years, the agency fined radio host Howard Stern no fewer than 15 times. In the '90s, most fines were between $2,000 and $10,000, but fines skyrocketed after the year 2000. In 2003 alone, the FCC handed out multiple fines of at least $250,000. The agency fined Fox over $1 million for digitally obscured nudity on "Married by America" that same year, and Clear Channel settled for $1.75 million in another case.

A Long History of Obscenity Laws

Television was not always heavily regulated, but skyrocketing fines are forcing many channels to limit what they show. While the $550,000 fine CBS paid for the Superbowl accident is a drop in the bucket compared to the corporation's $1.3 billion in profits, bad publicity and the risk of further sanctions have done more to hurt the company.

Obscenity laws go back more than a century with the Hicklin Test, which defined obscenity as any material that can corrupt the most susceptible members of society. With such a broad definition, most media could be portrayed as obscene to one group or another, and it was replaced by the Roth Test in 1957, which limited the test to average members of society. While the Roth test was a step in the right direction, it still provided courts with extensive censorship powers.

In 1973, the Miller Test replaced the Roth Test. It stated that for material to be obscene, it must fulfill three criteria:

• The average person finds the material prurient or arousing.

• The material openly describes sexual acts.

• The material has no redeeming artistic or scientific qualities.

Almost all media has some artistic merit, but the FCC can also fine channels for broadcasting indecent programming during certain hours. Indecency and obscenity are similar but not exactly alike — obscenity is primarily sexual while indecency can include vulgar language and violence.

Blurring the Lines

The Janet Jackson case ignited a deeper conversation in America: what exactly is considered obscene? The United States is almost unrecognizable from the country that existed in 1973, when the Miller Test became standard. More than half of the country has a broadband Internet connection, which no serious politician has considered censoring in the United States.

Social standards have also relaxed in the past four decades. Nudity, sex, and language are no longer taboo subjects for many Americans. The comedy program "South Park" courted controversy in the late '90s for its heavy use of four letter words and sexual content. New episodes continue to show adult content, but nobody bats an eyelash at the show any longer.

Many TV viewers and censorship critics are also pointing out double standards prevalent in obscenity laws. The Miller Test defines obscenity as purely sexual and does not account for graphic violence or language. While the FCC would almost certainly fine a broadcaster for showing a naked man or woman, the agency would be far less likely to fine a broadcaster for showing a man getting shot or other types of graphic violence.

What the Future Holds

Consumers are voting with their wallets. Millions of people tune in each week to catch the latest episodes of "Game of Thrones" and "Dexter," both of which feature strong sexual content, graphic violence, and adult language. There is such a high demand for adult dramas that TV providers are listening.

In June 2013, the Supreme Court did not state whether or not the FCC still had the authority to fine broadcasters that aired indecent content, but it did throw out two fines the FCC had levied several years ago. Even if the FCC retains the authority to fine companies for the next few years, it will likely lose that authority in the next decade or two.