May 12 2008 is a date that will live in infamy for New York anchorwoman Sue Simmons.
A veteran of WNBC-TV for nearly three decades, Simmons has a distinguished career as a serious, respected journalist. She's even had the distinction of portraying a news presenter in movies such as First Wives Club. Never one to take herself too seriously, she has been the subject of several blooper reels, falling about on the set or breaking up into fits of laughter.
On this day, Simmons wasn't under fire reporting from a hostage situation, nor was she having one of those laughing fits. She was simply doing a 'tease,' a live, thirty second commercial for the late night newscast featuring herself and co-anchor Chuck Scarborough. As routine as routine can get.
"At eleven, paying more at the grocer but getting less. We'll tell you how to get the most..." The video cut from Simmons to a videotaped file footage of grocery store activities. Then the video cut to more file footage, this time of a cruise ship. But instead of hearing Simmons or Scarborough tease the next item, viewers all across New York heard Simmons shouting this:
"The f**k are you doing?!"
All that aired for the next five seconds were an awkward absence of spoken words, just the footage of the ship and the background music. Then a quick fade to black and a different commercial.
Sue Simmons had committed -the- original sin of American television. She used a foul expletive on live air. The only place the FCC allows words such as that is on pay-cable channels such as HBO and Showtime, and to a lesser, more restricted degree, on middle-tier cable channels like FX. Certainly not on free-to-air TV, and definitely not by an impartial, sovereign presenter.
About an hour later, after the newscast began, Simmons took a brief pause to acknowledge and apologize for the error in judgement and choice of words. By that point, of course, the clip of the incident had begun to make the rounds on the internet, message boards began lighting up, and Sue's WNBC website profile became the number one searched for article on their page.
News directors across the country are scared to death of incidents like that happening on their air. The reason being the FCC's no-nonsense policy on decency laws. If enough viewers complain to them about use of foul languageaccidental or notthe FCC has the right to fine the network, or in this case, the individual station, responsible. The government office has already famously fined the CBS network $550,000 for the "Nipplegate" incident involving Janet Jackson's bared chest at the Super Bowl, as well as a $3.6 million levy for a supposedly indecent scene in a scripted drama show. NBC was threatened with a fine two years ago after Bono let the same f-word fly at the Golden Globe Awards.
The local station owners must decide how to handle slips of the tongue on live air so that the FCC doesn't make the costly decision for them. They could fine the party responsible themselves, or suspend the offender, even fire them. In Simmons case, it seems, her on-air apology was enough to placate the studio heads, and more than likely was given a private reprimand when the cameras were turned off.
The situation was not the same for a sports anchor in the then #52 market, Austin TX. Robert Flores was taping a sports segment late one night in 2004 that would air the next morning on the morning news on KEYE-TV. During the taping, some equipment crashed noisily in the background, and Flores used the fateful f-word in surprise. Then he continued finishing the report, and re-taped the story in which the blooper happened. The next morning, instead of the corrected tape being played, the orginal raw edit - offensive word intact - was put into the VTR machine, and the word was sent out over the air. Flores was summarily fired from KEYE later that week, despite the fact that he had taped a corrected version, and that the broadcast error was out of his control.
Why then, does an anchor with a larger audience on the #1 station in the #1 market get a slap on the wrist, while an anchor in a much smaller audience, during the lowest-rated morning show in town, get the sack? There was no report of audience complaint during newspaper reports of either person's mistake, so the answer must lie with their superiors, nervously sitting with the FCC at their backs ready to hit the fine button.