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Not giving up: Media giants Viacom, Fox, NBC ask FCC to rescind indecency ruling

WASHINGTON (BP)–Some entertainment giants are fighting back against the federal government’s crackdown on broadcast indecency.

Three of the country’s largest media firms — Viacom Inc., Fox Entertainment Group Inc. and NBC — have filed petitions asking the Federal Communications Commission to rescind its recent ruling against an on-air expletive, according to The Washington Times.

On March 18, the FCC overruled its own staff and decided an obscenity for male-female relations violates federal law covering radio and broadcast television. The decision reversed a ruling by the FCC’s enforcement bureau on the use of the expletive during NBC’s 2003 broadcast of the Golden Globe awards.

Viacom, which owns CBS, and Fox joined the ACLU, individual entertainers, and guilds for actors, directors and writers in a joint petition protesting the FCC action, according to The New York Times. NBC filed a separate petition.

While the agency did not comment directly on the petitions, FCC commissioners defended recent actions the next day at the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas.

“The indecency provision that is being administered today is the same one that’s been around for decades,” FCC Chairman Michael Powell told the broadcasters April 20, according to Reuters news service. “You do not want the government to write a red book of what you can say and not say.”

The Supreme Court has said the government can set restrictions on the use of sexual and excretory references on television and radio, Powell said, according to Reuters.

Another FCC member, Michael Copps, told the broadcasters, “I would like to see the industry step up and put the commission on the sidelines. Until that time, the FCC has an obligation to enforce and use all the tools we have.”

The regulatory and rhetorical actions are the latest in a brewing battle between the FCC and some broadcasters. Though complaints have been made for years concerning the sexual content and offensive language on TV and radio, the issue gained the national spotlight during the Super Bowl’s halftime show, Feb. 1. Justin Timberlake’s uncovering of one of Janet Jackson’s breasts on national TV capped a controversial show and brought a deluge of criticism from many Americans, including legislators and the FCC.

The FCC has cracked down, issuing a series of fines against broadcasting companies. The latest were issued April 8, when the commission announced its proposal of a total of $495,000 in fines against six stations that are part of Clear Channel Communications Inc. The fines were for “repeated, graphic and explicit sexual descriptions” on the show of shock-jock Howard Stern, according to the FCC.

Clear Channel, the country’s biggest radio chain, promptly removed Stern’s show from its stations, according to The Washington Times.

Congress is seeking to crack down as well on broadcast indecency. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved March 11 a bill that would increase the maximum fine to $500,000 per violation. The current maximum is $27,500. The vote was 391-22. The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, H.R. 3717, also calls for FCC license revocation proceedings after three violations.

The White House has endorsed the legislation.

A Senate committee, meanwhile, has approved a somewhat different version, S. 2056, but the full Senate has yet to act on it.

The FCC ruling that prompted the April 19 petitions by Viacom, Fox, NBC and others involved Bono, lead singer of the rock group U2, saying at the 2003 Golden Globes winning an award was “[expletive] brilliant.” After the Parents Television Council filed a complaint, the FCC’s enforcement bureau ruled the word did not violate the ban on broadcast indecency. Bono’s use of the word was non-sexual, as well as fleeting and isolated, the bureau said.

After granting a request for a review of the ruling, the five-member FCC struck down its bureau’s decision. It said not only did Bono’s use of the word qualify as profane under the law but other uses of the word would as well.

In its order, the FCC warned broadcasters they are “on clear notice that, in the future, they will be subject to potential enforcement action for any broadcast of the [expletive] or a variation thereof in situations such as that here.” Violators will be subject to fines and possibly revocation of their licenses, the FCC said.

FCC actions do not impact cable TV directly. The FCC is authorized to regulate only broadcast television, which includes such networks as ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

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