They allowed very bad words in the TV airing of "Saving Private Ryan" but not in a documentary about blues musicians. They forbade the use of one barnyard expletive because it came during an interview on a morning news show -- then allowed it because, well, it came during an interview on a morning news show.
That leaves station owners gambling with their most valuable asset. As the appeals court noted Tuesday, when an FCC lawyer was asked "if a program about the dangers of pre-marital sex designed for teenagers would be permitted," the attorney replied gingerly, "I suspect it would."
Would I survive a single game of Russian roulette? I suspect I would.
The FCC and its supporters seem to think Americans desperately need government assistance to protect themselves and their children against an onslaught of filth. But why? Since broadcasters have an interest in not alienating their audiences, they are bound to exercise discretion.
Even Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," which caters to a mature cable audience that is not easily offended, bleeps obscenities (which are frequent). Nickelodeon has a constitutional right to feature full-frontal nudity, but it doesn't.
Some networks are more graphic, because some viewers want such fare. But anyone who wants to avoid them can easily do so -- by blocking those channels or by deploying V-chips (required on all new TVs since 2000) that filter programs based on a ratings system.
In practice, not many households bother with the V-chip. Apparently most Americans either don't feel much need for protection from coarse offerings or find other ways to shield themselves.
In other words, they've found that free expression, while sometimes distasteful, is not an intolerable nuisance. When will the FCC make the same discovery?