WASHINGTON — A government crackdown on indecent programming resulted in a proposed fine of $3.6 million against dozens of CBS stations and affiliates on Wednesday — a record penalty from the Federal Communications Commission.
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The FCC said an episode of the CBS crime drama “Without a Trace” that aired in December 2004 was indecent. It cited the graphic depiction of “teenage boys and girls participating in a sexual orgy.”
CBS said it strongly disagrees with the FCC’s finding.
The program “featured an important and socially relevant storyline warning parents to exercise greater supervision of their teenage children. The program was not unduly graphic or explicit,” the network said in a statement.
The network can appeal the decision to the FCC. The company has 30 days to ask for reconsideration and provide an explanation as to why the network should not be held liable.
The proposed fine was among decisions from the agency stemming from more than 300,000 complaints it received concerning nearly 50 TV shows broadcast between 2002 and 2005.
Rejecting an appeal by CBS, the FCC also upheld its previous $550,000 fine against 20 of the network’s stations for the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl two years ago.
‘Surreal Life’ also fined
Other fines were proposed for broadcasts that included an episode of “The Surreal Life 2” on The WB and an episode of a Spanish-language talk show, the “Fernando Hidalgo Show,” on a Miami station.
These were the first fines issued under FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, clearing a backlog of investigations into indecency complaints. The commission issued no fines last year.
“The number of complaints received by the commission has risen year after year,” said Martin. “I share the concerns of the public — and of parents, in particular — that are voiced in these complaints.”
Responding to other complaints, the commission found that Fox Television Network had violated decency standards during the 2003 Billboard Music Awards. During the broadcast, reality-show star Nicole Richie uttered the “F” word and a common vulgarity for excrement.
“Each of these words is among the most offensive words in the English language,” the FCC said. But it declined to issue a fine against Fox because at the time of the broadcast existing precedent indicated the commission would not take action against isolated use of expletives, the FCC said.
While in the past it may have been unclear what would result in a fine, the ruling from the FCC appears to put broadcasters on notice that they could indeed face fines for the “S” word.
A 2004 decision from the FCC regarding the “F” word — uttered by rock star Bono during a Golden Globe Awards ceremony — made clear that virtually any use of that expletive was inappropriate.
‘Family Guy,’ ‘Simpsons’ in the clear
The commission dismissed complaints against a number of shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons.”
Martin, a Republican, has long advocated a tough stand against indecency violators. Before becoming chairman last year, he complained in several cases that the agency should be fining broadcasters based on each offensive utterance, not each program. That way, the FCC could find several violations in a program, drawing a bigger fine and sending a stronger message.
Martin is also on record supporting legislation to increase the maximum fine an indecency violation could draw. The current maximum is $32,500 per incident, but some lawmakers have called for boosting the penalty to as high as $500,000.
Federal law and FCC rules ban radio and over-the-air television stations from airing obscene material, such as describing sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, at any time. The rules also bar stations from broadcasting indecent material — references to sex or excretions — between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children might be more likely to be in the audience.
The rules do not apply to cable or satellite.
The agency’s proposed fine for “Without a Trace” covers broadcasts aired at 9 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones.
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