America's four largest TV networks - CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox - have joined forces with the Hearst-Argyle Television group in a legal challenge to the 'indecency' fines levied in recent months by the Federal Communications Commission - currently aglow with moral rectitude under its new presidentially-appointed chairman Kevin J Martin.

Each of the 'Big Four' has been hit by swingeing fines for allegedly offending the decencies of the US public, after a spate of complaints from rightist and religious groups about programs with coarse language and explicit themes. The pressure was also piled on by a moral majority in the Senate and House of Representatives.

Late last week, the networks filed lawsuits in federal appeals courts in Washington and New York to challenge the FCC's rulings. In defense they plead the First Amendment, hoping to find a solid majority of liberal and libertarian judges more sympathetic to such constitutional arguments than the denizens of Congress and the FCC.

The plaintiffs argue that "the FCC overstepped its authority in an attempt to regulate content protected by the First Amendment, acted arbitrarily and failed to provide broadcasters with a clear and consistent standard for determining what content the government intends to penalize."

The networks are hoping to find a solid majority, going if necessary all the way to the Supreme Court, of liberal and libertarian judges who are more sympathetic than the politicos to their First Amendment arguments.

That tactic, however, cuts little ice with L Brent Bozell III, president of The Parents Television Council, a lobbyist for more draconian penalties for the transmission of "obscene" programs,

"The broadcast networks are spitting in the faces of millions of Americans by saying they should be allowed to air the f-word and s-word on television," splutters Bozell. "This suggestion by the networks is utterly shameless."

Data sourced from New York Times; additional content by WARC staff