CBS Fined for "Trace" of Indecency

CBS slapped with record $3.6 million fine for indecent programming; FCC rules on '04 episode of Without a Trace

By Natalie Finn Mar 16, 2006 12:55 AMTags

Broadcast networks need to tread lightly around the F-word.

As in FCC.

The Federal Communications Commission addressed more than 300,000 backlogged indecency complaints Wednesday, including a charge against the CBS missing-persons hit Without a Trace.

All four big-timers--ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC--fell prey to the hunt for indecent content, with CBS leading the pack, as the FCC proposed fining the network and affiliates an unprecedented $3.63 million for a December 2004 episode of Without a Trace that featured teenagers engaging in orgy-style sexual shenanigans. The fine is to be shared by 111 CBS stations, according to Reuters.

Even Howard Stern at his worst only helped incur $3.5 million in penalties for Viacom in 2004, which is also the parent company of CBS.

The question of whether FCC chairman Kevin Martin's first broadcast indecency rulings would weigh heavily against the networks (former chair Michael Powell, who imposed a record $7.9 million in fines in '04, stepped down in March 2005) has been answered.

Martin, formerly a lawyer for President George W. Bush's presidential campaign, has called for steeper penalties since he joined the FCC in 2001. Bush endorsed a bill after Janet Jackson's breast-heard-round-the-world incident at the 2004 Super Bowl that would have raised the maximum per-violation fine to $500,000 from the current $32,500, but the legislation petered out in Congress.

"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 in a statement.

CBS said in a statement that it "strongly disagrees" with the FCC's current findings.

"The program, which aired in the last hour of prime time and carried a 'TV 14' V-chip parental guideline, 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, and we will pursue all remedies necessary to affirm our legal rights, while knowing that millions of Americans give their stamp of approval to Without a Trace each week," the network said. (True that--the show attracted 20.3 million viewers Thursday, Nielsen's seventh-ranked show for the week.)

The network had also appealed the FCC's record $550,000 fine handed down in September 2004 for Jackson's notorious wardrobe malfunction, but, as expected, the agency stuck to its indecency guns Wednesday and ordered CBS to pay up or take it up with the federal courts.

"More than two years ago we apologized to viewers for the inappropriate and unexpected half-time incident," CBS said. "We will continue to pursue all remedies necessary to affirm our legal rights. Today's decision by the FCC is just another step in the process."

And Martin fired back. "We appropriately reject the argument that CBS continues to make that this material is not indecent," he said. "That argument runs counter to commission precedent and common sense."

The FCC has tightened its reins on all broadcast programming significantly since the Super Bowl incident, inducing stations to impose five-minute delays at awards shows and sending radio stations racing for the bleep buttons. A batch of radio rulings will also be forthcoming, FCC officials told Bloomberg News last month.

Around 50 TV shows were put under the microscope Wednesday, with the FCC refusing to take action on complaints about material in 28 programs, according to the Hollywood Reporter, including an episode of Oprah in which Winfrey discussed teenage sexual activity.

On the other hand, Fox was found guilty of violating indecency standards with its 2003 telecast of the Billboard Music Awards. The Parent Television Council was none too pleased when Nicole Richie dropped an F-bomb and used the S-word while onstage with Simple Life costar Paris Hilton. (No, the words were not directed at her former pal.)

Fox was not fined at the time because the FCC was not taking action then against individual uses of expletives. But Martin has said that the agency should be fining each "offensive utterance."

"The number of complaints received by the commission has risen year after year," Martin told reporters. "I share the concerns of the public--and of parents, in particular--that are voiced in these complaints." Actually, the number of viewer complaints fell 86 percent in 2005 to 189,362, from 1.4 million in 2004. Perhaps some of those ticked-off parents finally found their television's off-buttons.

Meanwhile, many free-speech advocates continue to wonder how far the FCC should be able to go in its clean-air campaign.

"The FCC's longstanding indecency rules are probably headed for a First Amendment showdown in court," Paul Gallant, an analyst at the Stanford Washington Research Group and a former senior FCC aide, told "There's a real question whether broadcast media can continue to be regulated more heavily than other media like cable and the Internet."