For broadcasters seeking more guidance on what is indecent, federal regulators have some warning: Don't use the F-word.
The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday overruled its staff and declared that an expletive uttered by rock star Bono on NBC last year was both indecent and profane. The agency made it clear that virtually any use of the F-word was inappropriate for over-the-air radio and television.
"The 'F-word' is one of the most vulgar, graphic and explicit descriptions of sexual activity in the English language," the commission said Thursday. "The fact that the use of this word may have been unintentional is irrelevant; it still has the same effect of exposing children to indecent language."
The FCC has been under pressure to punish indecency on the airwaves after Janet Jackson bared her breast during a halftime performance at the Super Bowl, which was televised by CBS.
The FCC's declaration came as the commission on Thursday also announced three indecency fines for radio broadcasts — two against Infinity Broadcasting, including one for a Howard Stern show, and one against a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications.
But the commissioners did not propose a fine for Bono's expletive during the 2003 Golden Globe Awards because, they said, they had never before said that virtually any use of the F-word violated its rules.
Indeed, the commission specifically rejected earlier findings that occasional use of the F-word was acceptable, including a ruling by its enforcement bureau last October that Bono's comment was not indecent or obscene because he did not use the word to describe a sexual act.
The FCC received hundreds of complaints after Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock group U2, said, "This is really, really, f------ brilliant," and FCC Chairman Michael Powell asked his fellow commissioners to overturn the staff decision.
To avoid a repeat incident, NBC aired this year's Golden Globes broadcast on a 10-second delay. ABC did the same with its telecast of the Academy Awards show.
The FCC said such technology should have been deployed a year ago. "The ease with which broadcasters today can block even fleeting words in a live broadcast is an element in our decision to act upon a single and gratuitous use of a vulgar expletive," the commission said.
The decision also marked the first time that the FCC cited a four-letter word as profane; the commission previously equated profanity with language challenging God's divinity.
NBC said in a statement: "We believe the commission made the right decision in not fining us over the regrettable Bono incident. As we've previously said, Bono's utterance was unacceptable and we regret it happened."
According to the commission's order, "The Commission defines indecent speech as language that, in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium."
In another decision Thursday, the FCC proposed fining Infinity Broadcasting the maximum $27,500 for a Stern show broadcast July 26, 2001, on WKRK-FM in Detroit. The FCC received a complaint from a Detroit listener about a show that featured discussions about sexual practices and techniques.
The commission also affirmed a $7,000 fine for indecency first leveled in 2000 against Infinity station WLLD in Holmes Beach, Fla., for a live hip-hop concert featuring references to oral sex.
Infinity failed to return a call seeking comment.
The FCC also proposed fining a subsidiary of Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio station chain, the maximum $55,000 for a broadcast on two Florida radio stations, WAVW in Stuart and WCZR in Vero Beach, where the host conducted an interview with a couple allegedly having sex.
Clear Channel executive vice president Andrew Levin said, "We're as determined as ever to make sure that we don't have any violations in the future."
Federal law bars radio stations and over-the-air television channels from airing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuning in. The rules do not apply to cable and satellite channels or satellite radio.
The House earlier this month voted to increase the maximum fine for indecency to $500,000. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.