FCC Issues Steep Indecency Fines

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The government cracked down on indecent programming Tuesday, proposing a record fine against the nation's largest radio chain for a show titled "Bubba the Love Sponge" and only the second fine ever for a TV broadcast.

The FCC proposed a $755,000 fine against Clear Channel Communications for sexually explicit segments of the radio show aired on four Florida radio stations between 6:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. It was the single largest fine ever proposed for indecency.

The commission also proposed a $27,500 fine against Young Broadcasting of San Francisco Inc. for airing a man exposing himself on its "KRON 4 Morning News" show.

The fines were announced a day before a congressional subcommittee planned to examine the FCC's enforcement of indecency rules. Critics say the FCC moves too slowly to address complaints and that its penalties are not severe enough to dissuade broadcasters from airing objectionable material.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell last week called for Congress to increase the maximum fine for indecency from $27,500 per incident to $275,000. He said the latest fines show the FCC is serious about pursuing penalties but needs the threat of larger fines to get broadcasters to toe the line.

"As the commission continues the challenging task of balancing the protections of the First Amendment with the need to protect our young, these increased enforcement actions will allow the commission to turn what is now a 'cost of doing business' into a significant 'cost for doing indecent business,"' he said.

Clear Channel was fined for objectionable segments of "Bubba the Love Sponge" aired on its stations in four Florida cities: Callahan, Clearwater, Port Charlotte and West Palm Beach.

The segments included graphic discussions about sex and drugs that were "designed to pander to, titillate and shock listeners," the FCC said. One segment featured the cartoon characters Alvin the chipmunk, George Jetson and Scooby Doo discussing sexual activities.

The segments ran 26 times and the commission proposed fining Clear Channel $27,500 for each airing, or $715,000. Clear Channel faces an additional $40,000 fine because of record-keeping violations at the stations. The company has 30 days to pay the fine or appeal.

In response, Clear Channel called for an industry task force to develop indecency standards for radio, television, cable and satellite networks. President Mark Mays agreed there are limits to what programmers may air but said the government's enforcement is haphazard so broadcasters don't have a clear idea of where the line is drawn.

"Indecency is not just a radio problem, a television problem or even a cable problem," Mays said. "It is an industry-wide challenge, and we all must take responsibility to make sure it is addressed on a fair and consistent basis."

Commissioner Michael Copps was the only member of the five-person FCC to oppose the fine against Clear Channel. He said the penalty was not severe enough, suggesting instead that the FCC consider revoking the stations' licenses.

"The message to licensees is clear," Copps said. "Even egregious repeated violations will not result in revocation of license."

The fine against Young Broadcasting of San Francisco was for the KRON morning program on Oct. 4, 2002. During it, one of the performers from a theatrical show titled "Puppetry of the Penis" briefly exposed himself. The performers appeared on the TV show wearing only capes.

The FCC said the station should have expected that such a display could occur and should have taken steps to prevent it.

The only other TV station to pay a fine for indecent programming was a Puerto Rican station in 2001. That fine was $21,000.

The largest cumulative fine for indecency was $1.7 million paid by Infinity Broadcasting in 1995 for various violations by radio host Howard Stern.

The fines came in advance of a House subcommittee hearing prompted by the FCC enforcement bureau's decision not to fine NBC for an expletive uttered by rock star Bono during the Golden Globe Awards show last year.

The lead singer of the Irish rock group U2 said, "This is really, really, f------ brilliant." The bureau said Bono's comments were not indecent or obscene because the word was used as an adjective rather than to describe sex.

Powell has asked his fellow commissioners to overturn the decision.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., has introduced legislation for a tenfold increase in the maximum fine.

FCC Commissioners Kevin Martin and Jonathan Adelstein also have called for the FCC to fine stations for every indecent "utterance" rather than for every show or segment. That would produce much larger fines.

The FCC defines obscene material as describing sexual conduct "in a patently offensive way" and lacking "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." Indecent material is not as offensive but still contains references to sex or excretions.

Radio stations and over-the-air television channels cannot air obscene material at any time and cannot air indecent material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.