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Off with Helen Mirren's head for 'indecency'?

September 2, 2006 |  6:56 pm


Hey, it's not like the grand British dame used the f-word or s-word like some infamous riffraff at other award shows: Bono at the Golden Globes (f-word) and Cher (f-word) and Nicole Richie (s-word) at the Billboard Music Awards. But Helen Mirren put NBC on the spot when she accepted her Emmy as best actress in a TV film or mini for "Elizabeth I."

After racing to the podium, she employed a common British phrase, saying, "My great triumph is not falling arse over tit coming up those stairs! If you saw the shoes I’ve got on, you would understand." Later in the telecast, award presenter Calista Flockhart repeated the phrase, substituting the Americanized "ass."

"It is utterly irresponsible and atrocious for NBC to air this vulgar language during the safe harbor time when millions of children were in the viewing audience," declared L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, which filed a complaint with the FCC requesting that NBC be penalized for not bleeping the phrase.

"The comments aired before 10 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones, when federal law prevents obscene language on over-the-air broadcasts," reported the L.A. Times. "The FCC ruled in January 2005 that isolated use of words describing private body parts, including 'ass,' 'penis' and 'testicle,' were not indecent when they aired as scripted dialogue on shows and movies. But the ruling came during the tenure of former FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell. His successor, Kevin J. Martin, has taken a harder line on indecency. Congress dramatically raised the stakes for indecency complaints in June, boosting fines tenfold, to a maximum of $325,000 for each violation."

At the Emmys, NBC did not use a 10-second delay as it does at the Golden Globe telecast ever since Bono accepted an award in 2003, saying, "This is really, really f---ing brilliant." Initially, the enforcement division of the FCC declared that the use of the f-word was not obscene, noting that it "may be crude and offensive, but, in the context presented here, did not describe sexual or excretory organs or activities. The performer used the word . . . as an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation. The use of specific words, including expletives or other 'four-letter words' does not render material obscene."

Later, however, after the uproar surrounding Janet Jackson's boob-flashing at the Super Bowl, the FCC reversed its Bono-Globes decision under pressure from the Parents Television Council and declared the utterance obscene, but it issued no penalty.

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Photo: One of Britain's reigning thespians is not amused by demands that NBC be punished for her Emmy acceptance speech. It's unlikely that the network will have to pay a financial penalty since her "indecent" words (specifically usage of "tit") was far less racy than what Bono said at the Globes, which resulted in no fine.

FCC indecency fines against the media have skyrocketed in recent years — $7.9 million in 2004. One of the highest fines went to the Fox network, which had to pay $1.2 million for its short-lived "Married by America" reality show featuring steamy parties where female strippers spanked a man in his underwear while he was down on all fours. Earlier this year CBS and its affiliates were fined a lump sum of $3.6 million for various offenses, including the Jackson incident and episodes of "Without a Trace," dating back to 2002.

The last time the Supreme Court ruled on this issue was 1978 when it reached a 5-4 decision in the infamous "Seven Dirty Words" case involving George Carlin, declaring that obscenity is protected by free speech, but that the FCC has the right to shield children from indecent TV and radio programs. The FCC permits a "safe harbor" for indecency aired between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.