FCC slaps CBS with $3.5 million record fine

Spate of sanctions signals tough stance

March 16, 2006|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

After more than a year of inactivity, the Federal Communications Commission leapt into action yesterday, levying dozens of sanctions for indecency against television broadcasters - including a record $3.5 million fine against CBS for airing an episode of the hit drama Without a Trace that included what the commission labeled a "teen sex orgy."

The rulings, which included fines against NBC, Fox and WB's Washington affiliate, define new and tougher standards on indecency and appear to expand by one the list of words banned from the air.

They also represent the first actions taken by the FCC chairman, Kevin J. Martin, a former White House economic adviser.

"The number of complaints received by the commission has risen year after year," Martin said in a statement. "I share the concerns of the public - and of parents, in particular." Between the years of 2002 and 2005, the agency received 300,000 complaints about television shows. Anyone may file a complaint.

Also yesterday, the FCC upheld a $550,000 fine against CBS for the now-infamous Super Bowl 2004 incident in which singer Janet Jackson's clothing was ripped, revealing her breast on air during the halftime show.

CBS had appealed the decision, which came in the wake of a public uproar and congressional hearings over what came to be called a "wardrobe malfunction."

"CBS continues to disagree with the FCC's finding that the 2004 Super Bowl was legally indecent," network executives said in a statement. "More than two years ago we apologized to viewers for the inappropriate and unexpected half-time incident. We will continue to pursue all remedies necessary to affirm our legal rights."

Party scene

The network also said it would appeal the fine against Without a Trace, a prime-time drama about an FBI unit that tracks missing persons.

The episode, broadcast on Dec. 31, 2004, featured a party scene that included "at least three shots depicting intercourse, two between couples and one `group sex' shot and sounds of people moaning," according to the FCC.

The program in question "aired in the last hour of prime time and carried a `TV 14' V-Chip parental guideline," stated CBS. It also "featured an important and socially relevant story line warning parents to exercise greater supervision of their teenage children. The program was not unduly graphic or explicit."

While the fines levied against CBS were the largest, the commission also ruled that the Fox network violated decency standards in its broadcast of the 2003 Billboard Music Awards because of language used by Nicole Richie, who appeared as a presenter.

While the ruling expands the list of words now considered indecent - to include a term for excrement - no fine was levied.

The complaint against Fox was filed by the Parents Television Council, a group that describes itself as "founded in 1995 to ensure that children are not constantly assaulted by sex, violence and profanity on television."

According to transcripts provided by the group, Richie, who stars on the Fox reality series The Simple Life, said during the awards show: "Have you ever tried to get cow [expletive] off your Prada purse? It's not so [expletive] simple."

The Parents Council said in a statement yesterday: "We applaud the FCC for upholding the substantial fine against CBS for Janet Jackson's indecent exposure during the 2004 Super Bowl ... and for clarifying whether utterances of the F-word and S-word are indecent."

The Fox network plans to appeal the ruling.

"We do not agree with the FCC's decision that a fleeting expletive in the context of a live broadcast is either indecent or obscene under the law and Supreme Court precedent," Fox spokesman Scott Grogin said in a statement.

Repeated profanity

In addition, KCSM-TV, a PBS affiliate in San Mateo, Calif., was fined $15,000 for the graphic language in a documentary by noted filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Titled The Blues: Godfathers and Sons, the film depicted the history of blues music and contained an interview with Marshall Chess, an independent record label owner, who repeatedly used profanity.

Washington's WBDC was fined $27,500 for airing on Feb. 8, 2004, an episode of The Surreal Life 2 titled "Pool Party" that included pixel-ated views of frontal nudity. Although the episode was carried by all the WB affiliates, only WBDC was fined because it was the station against which a complaint was lodged.

Since becoming a member of the FCC in 2001, Martin has been calling for tougher standards. Yesterday's actions were the first of his tenure as chairman and the first taken by the commission since December 2004. Martin replaced Michael Powell, who stepped down last year.

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