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FCC upholds Janet Jackson decision; proposes new fines

WASHINGTON (BP)–Responding to the public’s growing concern about the content of television programming, the Federal Communications Commission March 15 handed down its first fines since 2004 and upheld a ruling regarding a controversial Super Bowl halftime show.

FCC commissioners released decisions resolving more than 300,000 consumer complaints about nearly 50 television programs broadcast between February 2002 and March 2005, proposing a total of $3.9 million in new fines.

“Congress has long prohibited the broadcasting of indecent and profane material and the courts have upheld challenges to these standards,” Kevin Martin said in his first ruling as FCC chairman. “But the number of complaints received by the commission has risen year after year. They have grown from hundreds to hundreds of thousands, and the number of programs that trigger these complaints continues to increase as well.

“I share the concerns of the public — and of parents in particular — that are voiced in these complaints.”

The largest fine issued was for a record $3.6 million against dozens of CBS stations and affiliates for airing an episode of the crime drama “Without a Trace” with the graphic depiction of “teenage boys and girls participating in a sexual orgy.”

CBS, which justified the show because it “featured an important and socially relevant storyline warning parents to exercise greater supervision of their teenage children,” has 30 days to appeal.

Additional proposed fines totaling about $300,000 included an episode of The WB’s “The Surreal Life 2” and an episode of “The Fernando Hidalgo Show,” a Spanish-language program airing on a Miami station.

“These decisions, taken both individually and as a whole, demonstrate the commission’s continued commitment to enforcing the law prohibiting the airing of obscene, indecent and profane material,” Martin said.

Commissioners also rejected an appeal by CBS that said Janet Jackson’s exposure during the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl was not indecent, holding to their previous decision that CBS is responsible for the show and failed to take actions to prevent the broadcast of the material.

“We appropriately reject the argument that CBS continues to make that this material is not indecent,” Martin said. “That argument runs counter to commission precedent and common sense.”

FCC rules, which do not apply to cable or satellite, ban radio and television stations from airing obscene material at any time and from broadcasting indecent material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The current maximum fine per incident is $32,500, but some lawmakers have proposed increasing the fine to $500,000.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, commended the FCC for its stance against objectionable material, especially when broadcasters broke the law.

“Friends and supporters of decency on America’s publicly owned airwaves should be very encouraged by the FCC’s stiff fines against these egregious violations of the public trust by the offending networks,” Land said. “It shows that when the public expresses its outrage, it can make a difference in the way their government responds.”

Robert Peters, president of Morality in Media, noted that opinion polls repeatedly have found that large majorities of Americans are offended by the “glut of sex and vulgarity on TV,” and parents are concerned particularly with the effect such content has on their children.

“The FCC actions are necessary because the broadcast TV networks no longer have an industry-wide code and self-imposed internal standards that generally reflect community standards,” Peters said in a statement. “Today, TV networks are primarily interested in reaching morally challenged teens and young adults, and one proven way to do that is with programming that is sexual and vulgar.”

Tim Winters, executive director of the Parents Television Council, agreed that broadcasters must abide by FCC standards.

“This is not a proposal; this is law — well-settled law that was affirmed by the Supreme Court three decades ago,” Winters said. “The airwaves must remain safe for families when children are likely to be in the audience. Those who violate the public trust are breaking the law and must be punished accordingly.”

Lanier Swann, director of government relations for Concerned Women of America, said the fines should send a message to both broadcasters and consumers.

“The FCC is taking a huge leap in the right direction,” Swann said. “Issuing these fines sends a loud message to the TV gurus that broadcast indecency is not being tolerated under Chairman Martin’s watch. Consumers should take note that complaints will no longer fall on deaf ears. The FCC has proven that it is willing to take a stand for families and refuse to allow broadcasters to go unpunished for violating decency standards.”

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