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Fines for Fox in FCC’s Sights

Oct 11, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Preparing to send another blast across the broadcasting industry’s bow, the Federal Communications Commission is seriously considering a proposal to hit the Fox Broadcasting Co. and its affiliates with more than $1 million in indecency fines for material aired last year on the reality show “Married by America,” sources close to the commission said.

Unlike the $550,000 fine levied against CBS last month for Janet Jackson’s breast flash during the Super Bowl halftime show, sources said that for the “Married by America” incident the commission is leaning toward fining both Fox-owned stations and all of its affiliates, which would impact a total of 182 stations.

According to sources, the FCC is discussing a fine of at least $7,000 per station. If the fine for each Fox affiliate is limited to $7,000, the total levy would be $1.27 million. At the time the show aired last year, the maximum cap for an FCC indecency fine was $27,500 (which is the amount levied on each of the 20 CBS-owned stations in the Super Bowl incident). If regulators assess the maximum then allowed on “Married,” the fine would be $5,005,000, but that is said to be unlikely.

Representatives of the FCC and Fox were declining comment last week.

Sources said the question of whether to fine Fox, and how much, is one of more than a dozen indecency cases that the agency is expected to decide within the next couple of weeks.

The move to fine all affiliates breaks new ground. At the time of the Super Bowl penalty, a majority of the FCC’s five commissioners said they decided to limit the fines to the network’s owned-and-operated stations because affiliates had no way to know what might be coming in the halftime programming.

The complaint against “Married” was filed at the FCC by the watchdog Parents Television Council. It alleged that an episode broadcast April 7 last year ran afoul of the agency’s indecency prohibition.

According to PTC, the prime-time episode focused on bachelor and bachelorette parties featuring a broad range of sexual behavior, including suggestive spanking, lap dancing by topless strippers with breasts partially blurred and whipped-cream licking. They charge it also showed a woman’s bare buttocks.

In his statement on the CBS Super Bowl fine, FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican, said he did not believe CBS’s affiliates warranted punishment because most previous halftime programs had “generally reflected the family-friendly character of the event.”

“While affiliates certainly are not exempt from their responsibility to guard against the airing of indecent material, I do not believe it is warranted under the circumstances before us, where one would not have reasonably anticipated the dramatic departure,” the chairman said.

But the FCC’s two Democratic commissioners-Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein-made clear that they believe CBS’s affiliates should have been fined.

“Some level of fine would have been appropriate,” Commissioner Copps said.

“This decision sets a puzzling precedent by failing to hold all licensees responsible for the material broadcast over their stations,” Mr. Adelstein said.

Now it appears Chairman Powell and the two Democrats are leading the effort to fine all of the Fox stations in this latest incident.

This kind of fine makes it more difficult for networks and stations to know just what is allowed. In this case, there were no flashes of bare breasts, nor were any of the common expletives aired. The complaint was about the strong sexuality expressed by the broadcast, including some flashes of skin, even though blurs and other editing were used to censor certain scenes.