Two weeks ago, The Walking Dead sparked an enormous amount of controversy by airing a brutal season premiere that many thought went too far. Some viewers, fed up with what they regard as the senseless violence of the series quit, an opinion that I can fully appreciate despite believing that the level of violence was in keeping with the history of the show and the graphic novels upon which it is based.
Aside from the actual merit of the episode, what left many viewers confused was why AMC even allowed that level of violence on the same series that a season before had bleeped out the word f*ck. How does The Walking Dead get away with smashing a guy’s head in repeatedly, but not get away with an F-bomb?
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for regulating obscene, indecent or profane content. However, the FCC’s jurisdiction only extends to broadcast networks, like Fox, NBC, ABC or the CW because the government owns the broadcast network spectrum. In exchange for its use of those airwaves, those networks agree to abide by the FCC’s rules (note, however, that the Supreme Court in 2011 ruled that the FCC could no longer fine even the broadcast networks for “fleeting expletives,” i.e., a performer who drops an unexpected F-bomb during a live appearance).
The FCC does not have jurisdiction over cable networks, however, so they are free to inject as much indecency and profanity as they would like. On premium networks like HBO, Showtime, or Cinemax, nudity, violence, and profanity have long been accepted, while the level of violence, nudity and profanity on cable networks like FX and AMC has only relatively recently seen a dramatic uptick. However, in the abstract, AMC is as free as HBO to air nudity and violence.
In practice, however, there’s a huge difference between how HBO and AMC operate. HBO is a subscription service that does not air commercials. AMC, which gets a portion of its revenue from cable subscriptions, also receives a portion of its revenue from commercial advertising. That’s the key: AMC is beholden to advertisers, while HBO is not.