LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- There's no more potent symbol for Hollywood TV executives these days than Peter Griffin's pixilated buttocks.
That was the image on Fox a few weeks back. The network's executives ordered a 5-year-old "Family Guy" scene blurred because it was nervous about what the Federal Communications Commission might think of Griffin's naked rear end -- a cartoon character's naked rear -- on television.
In a separate episode, Fox similarly covered the baby behind of Stewie, Peter's son. Both were shown with no reaction when "Family Guy" ran initially a half-decade ago.
TV executives are extremely jittery about the FCC these days, concerned that the taste standards they had become used to have become as blurred as Peter's butt.
And Friday's resignation of FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell will likely add to their uncertainty. Powell backed a record $7.7 million in indecency fines leveled by the FCC last year, up from $48,000 the year before he became chairman.
"We can't have a clear view of the FCC guidelines because the FCC guidelines are not clear," said Gail Berman, Fox entertainment president. "We have to be checking and second-guessing ourselves now, and that's really difficult. We have to protect our affiliates."
Each of Fox's 169 stations was fined $7,000 by the FCC in October for airing an episode of "Married By America" that showed people licking whipped cream from strippers' bodies and a man in his underwear being spanked by strippers.
The jitters extend well beyond Hollywood, as witnessed by the dozens of ABC affiliates that would not air the Academy Award-winning drama "Saving Private Ryan" last November because of concerns about violence and profanity.
Their critics have little sympathy.
"They're lucky they got away with as much as they did," said Laura Mahaney, spokeswoman for the conservative watchdogs Parents Television Council. "It reminds me of a person who has been speeding as much as they wanted and now they're getting tickets."
Fox may have blurred some rear ends, but Mahaney said a recent "Family Guy" episode left intact a father-son chat about penis size.
'In this post-Janet Jackson world'
Janet Jackson's nipple exposure led to the FCC assessing massive fines.
The butt-blurring "seems a little extreme," but "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane said he recognizes the tightrope networks are walking.
"All networks are under enormous pressure from the FCC and we deal with that every day," he said. "I mean, the phrase 'in this post-Janet Jackson world' is kind of bandied about like they're talking about September 11th."
CBS, which aired the brief glimpse of Jackson's breast that started everything a year ago at the Super Bowl, had its own buttocks self-censorship a few weeks ago. An episode of "Without a Trace" showed a naked man running down a street, filmed from behind.
The network ordered the scene cut out, reasoning that "we don't need that," said CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves.
CBS is refusing to pay the FCC's $550,000 fine imposed last fall for Jackson's famed wardrobe malfunction.
"What we're saying to our producers is, 'Guys, let's not be stupid about this,"' Moonves said. "Clearly, there's a change in how the FCC is looking at us. We're not changing our content. But by the same token, we have to be aware of what the world is out there."
A PBS executive said last weekend the network is altering a scene in the upcoming movie "Dirty War," which is being shown on the Public Broadcasting Service next month after a run on HBO, that shows a naked woman being scrubbed down after a fictional chemical attack. An outtake will be used that shows the woman at a more discreet angle.
"We don't want to be irresponsible and it is difficult," Fox's Berman said. "We are attempting to do our best to find our way on this very complicated issue and very complicated landscape and we ask the FCC for better guidelines."
But as a regulatory body, the FCC responds to complaints and individual circumstances, said Gene Kimmelman, director of public policy for Consumers Union and a close monitor of the federal agency.
'The FCC can't bail them out'
Asking the FCC for guidelines is like asking a court, before a crime is committed, whether it would be murder or manslaughter, he said.
"The FCC can't bail them out," he said. "They're not going to give them a wink and a nod as to what programming is acceptable."
Berman doesn't see her request as unreasonable. "They're the ones who are fining people," she said.
The FCC doesn't fine feature filmmakers for nudity or violence in movies because people make conscious decisions whether or not to buy a ticket and see them, he said. The same logic holds for cable networks like HBO or Showtime that a viewer must pay for. For the most part, if you have a TV, you'll get the broadcast networks -- no choice is involved.
The broadcasters can eliminate the problem by making themselves available "a la carte," or giving customers the chance to pick or choose which networks to accept when buying a cable or satellite service instead of having to accept a basic package where they are already included, he said.
A network willing to voluntarily risk cutting its distribution in that manner is about as likely as a blizzard on the Fourth of July.
"The uncertainties and concern about the First Amendment have been very much driven by the business decisions of Hollywood to force consumers to purchase more channels than they really want to get," Kimmelman said.
There are other avenues, said the PTC's Mahaney, mentioning ABC's "Lost" as a solid, popular series free of taste issues.
"You can make compelling entertainment programming and it doesn't have to be full of sex and violence," she said.
Meanwhile, MacFarlane is looking forward to a day when he doesn't have to worry about how much skin his animators are drawing.
"We hope that it will pass and that the good folks in Washington will come to their senses," he said. Source