The Federal Communications Commission declared last Friday it would fine Disney-owned ABC network $1.43m for broadcasting a revealing episode of cop show NYPD Blue before the watershed in violation of regulations prohibiting the broadcast of obscene material between 6am and 10pm.
Specifically, material is deemed indecent if it "in context depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs in a patently offensive manner as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium".
The offending scene from the 25 February 2003 episode in question shows a young boy walking in on a naked woman about to take a shower, and features "multiple, close-up views" of her buttocks. According to Reuters, it aired at 9pm on 52 ABC stations in the Central and Mountain time zones, provoking "numerous complaints".
The FCC wrote: "We find that the programming at issue is within the scope of our indecency definition because it depicts sexual organs and excretory organs - specifically an adult woman's buttocks. Although ABC argues, without citing any authority, that the buttocks are not a sexual organ, we reject this argument, which runs counter to both case law and common sense."
ABC countered that it had aired the show, which ran from 1993 to 2005, with "appropriate parental warnings". It noted that NYPD Blue had already been running for almost ten years when the offending episode was broadcast "and the realistic nature of its storylines was well known to the viewing public".
The FCC has imposed the maximum available for the offence - $27,500 - multiplied by the 52 stations involved. ABC stations in the Eastern and Pacific time zones avoided sanction because they broadcast the episode at 10pm local time.
Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate said of the judgement: "Our action today should serve as a reminder to all broadcasters that Congress and American families continue to be concerned about protecting children from harmful material and that the FCC will enforce the laws of the land vigilantly.
"In fact, pursuant to the Broadcast Decency Act of 2005, Congress increased the maximum authorized fines tenfold. The law is simple. If a broadcaster makes the decision to show indecent programming, it must air between the hours of 10pm and 6am. This is neither difficult to understand nor burdensome to implement." ®