Will M.I.A.'s "Middle Finger Malfunction" at the Super Bowl Lead to FCC Fines?
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. An entertainer’s provocative gesture during the Super Bowl halftime show riles viewers and leads to calls for action by the Federal Communications Commission. Sound familiar?
This football season, the entertainer in question is musical artist M.I.A., who drew attention when she “flipped off millions of viewers during TV’s most-watched telecast of the year.” During her halftime performance, she made the “middle finger” gesture while singing a song in which the “S-Word” was implied but not clearly sung. The incident, which some have called a “middle finger malfunction,” recalls the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show involving Janet Jackson. The FCC imposed $550,000 in fines ($27,500 per station) against Viacom-owned CBS broadcast stations for Ms. Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction,” only to have the fines twice stricken by an appellate court – once on appeal from the FCC, and once on remand from the U.S. Supreme Court.
So far, the FCC has not commented regarding whether any indecency complaints have been filed with the Commission about last night's program. Thanks to statutory changes made a few years ago, the maximum forfeiture penalty for broadcasts of indecent, obscene or profane material is now higher than when the Jackson case was decided: $325,000 for each violation or each day of a continuing violation, capped at $3 million for a single act or failure to act.
I've previously blogged about the U.S. Supreme Court's review of the FCC’s authority to regulate broadcast indecency with respect to “fleeting expletives” (language such as the “F-Word” or the “S-Word”) and nude buttocks. The “middle finger” gesture, however, involves neither nudity nor spoken language and is not at issue in those cases. So, does a middle finger gesture on broadcast TV violate the FCC’s rules?
While many use the terms “indecency” and “obscenity” interchangeably, in fact the FCC enforces laws that target discrete categories of obscene or indecent programming on broadcast (not cable or satellite) TV:
- The FCC defines indecent material as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” Such material may only be broadcast during safe harbor hours (i.e., 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.).
- The Supreme Court defines obscene material (which cannot be broadcast at any time) as material that meets a three-pronged test:
- An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
- The material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and
- The material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
With respect to specific FCC guidance, the FCC does not appear to have issued any order finding the “middle finger” gesture to be obscene or indecent. A few years ago, the FCC briefly mentioned the gesture (fn. 94) in assessing a fine against Fox for “fleeting expletives” used by entertainer Nicole Richie during a televised awards show. The FCC argued that Fox was on notice that Ms. Richie had demonstrated a “penchant for vulgarity” by using the middle finger gesture during a previous broadcast. Separately, press reports indicate that the FCC received complaints about a 2009 awards show broadcast on NBC where director film Darren Aronofsky made the gesture on camera, but no FCC decision has been issued in connection with this broadcast. Alternatively, some have questioned whether FCC policies regarding the use of certain “visual images” in conjunction with song lyrics would encompass the middle finger gesture.
In my view, this sort of "Flying Fickle Finger of Fate" should not be deemed an FCC violation. There are definitional issues, First Amendment concerns and questions of whether the FCC has given fair, adequate notice. Given the uncertainty about the FCC’s authority to enforce broadcast indecency policies due to the pending U.S. Supreme Court case, even if complaints are filed with the FCC, it is unlikely that the FCC would reach a decision on the complaints before the Court issues its decision. In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether this halftime performance will sway public opinion on the issue or will influence the Court’s decision.