A controversial decision by the Federal Communications Commission to fine Fox Broadcasting Co. and its affiliates a record $1.183 million for allegedly indecent material on the reality show “Married by America” is spurring affiliate calls to preview network programming.
“Obviously, we’re going to have to start screening,” said Bob Blacher, VP and general manager of Fox affiliate WFFT-TV in Fort Wayne, Ind.
“The solution is to pre-feed; it’s the only solution,” added Jim Goodmon, president and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting.
Affiliates are feeling pressure to screen network shows because last week’s decision by the FCC set a fine of $7,000 apiece on all 169 of the Fox TV stations and affiliates that aired the April 7, 2003, episode of “Married.”
Previous FCC indecency punishment for TV network programming-including last month’s $550,000 levy for Janet Jackson’s exposure of her breast during the CBS Super Bowl broadcast-have been limited to the network and its owned-and-operated stations.
But the FCC is breaking new ground by now forcing affiliates to share the financial penalty for airing a network program, dramatically raising the stakes for the affiliates, and not just because of their new financial exposure.
At least as of last week, the FCC said it had never revoked a broadcast license for an indecency violation. But legislative proposals on Capitol Hill this year would have required the agency to consider yanking licenses of stations that violated the indecency regulations three times-and those proposals could be resurrected next year.
“We’re going to have to pay a little more attention,” WFFT’s Mr. Blacher said.
Scott Grogin, a Fox spokesman, declined to comment on the fines other than to say, “We disagree with the FCC’s decision and believe the content was not indecent.”
In regard to affiliate calls for an opportunity to pre-screen all programming in the future, Mr. Grogin added: “We plan to discuss all of the issues related to the FCC’s ruling with the affiliate board. We will have private discussions. We will not respond to any individual statements by affiliates with the press.”
The episode of “Married” on the FCC’s radar screen focused on bachelor and bachelorette parties that included a broad range of sexually suggestive behavior, including spankings and lap dances by topless strippers with breasts partly blurred. “Although the nudity was pixilated, even a child would have known that the strippers were topless and the sexual activity was being shown,” the FCC said.
As at least a partial fix, Capitol Broadcasting’s Mr. Goodmon said his company is planning to start regularly monitoring network programming on its five TV stations using five- to six-second delays-the same technology that stations use to bleep indecent utterances on live programming.
But the FCC’s action last week, Mr. Goodmon said, has complicated the company’s plan because the agency’s new decision focuses on imagery within scenes, pushing indecency determinations onto far more subjective grounds.
“I don’t know how you [make a decision about pulling a program already in progress off the air] in five seconds,” Mr. Goodmon said.
Industry observers said a practical impact of the agency’s decision will be to further roil the indecency waters for program producers, who are already practicing self-censorship.
“When in doubt, edit it out” are the programming industry’s new watchwords, said Jonathan Rintels, executive director of Hollywood watchdog Center for Creative Voices.
“It used to be there was a fairly bright line,” Mr. Rintels said. “Now that bright line is gone. It’s all just gray area.”
Cable, Satellite Win
The big industry winners last week, according to industry observers, are cable and satellite, broadcasting’s pay competitors, which are not subject to FCC indecency prohibitions.
“[FCC Chairman] Michael Powell continues to drive edgier programming over to pay platforms, and that appears to be a goal of his,” said one industry source.
Last week’s decision by the FCC was also raising new industry concerns about the skyrocketing influence of the Parents Television Council, the watchdog group that is claiming a victory for challenging the Fox show.
“The FCC is finally starting to listen to an outraged public,” PTC President L. Brent Bozell said in a statement. “We applaud the FCC for holding all Fox affiliates responsible for airing the filthy and indecent broadcast.”
In its official announcement last week, the FCC said it had received 159 complaints about the Fox broadcast, and an agency source confirmed that at least some of those had originated from the PTC.
But Kelly Walmsley, a PTC spokesperson, said the group had generated 4,073 complaints concerning “Married by America” from its nearly 1 million members via an e-mail alert. She said the e-mail alert technology enables PTC to monitor the number of its members who complain.
Using e-mail alerts, PTC has generated 138,701 complaints about the content of radio and TV programs and FCC decisions since January, she added.
Rumor among affiliates late last week was that Fox would pay the entire $1.183 million fine, assuming that the expected challenges fail.
At least one of Fox’s affiliates-Mr. Goodmon’s WRAL-TV in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.-beat the fines last week altogether because it had been pre-empting the “Married” program.
But Mr. Goodmon said the pre-emption decision had been based on a station determination that earlier shows in the short-lived reality series demeaned marriage, not because of particular scenes.
“We decided here locally we didn’t think it was appropriate to demean marriage,” Mr. Goodmon said. n
Alex Ben Block contributed to this report.