Broadcast Indecency Complaints on Rise

Rhett Pardon
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Broadcast indecency complaints have been on the rise this year because the Federal Communications Commission has made it easier to file them. The regulatory agency recently made it more convenient to file a complaint, by expanding its system by email, as well as by mail, phone, or fax.

And it has been a banner year for fines. In the past six months alone, the FCC has levied more than $1.55 million in fines. From January 2001 through October 2003, the commissioners proposed just $247,500 in penalties.

The FCC, which controls the public airwaves, said that 530,885 complaints have been filed in 2004, all but 57 related to singer Janet Jackson's breast-baring incident during this year’s Super Bowl. Last year, the commission received 240,350 complaints about 318 different radio or TV programs, compared with just 346 in 2002 from 152 shows.

On Thursday, the agency ruled rock singer Bono was profane and indecent when he used the phrase “fucking brilliant” at last year's Golden Globe Awards. The agency also proposed a fine of $27,500 for a Howard Stern broadcast on Detroit’s WKRK in which he discussed oral sex, as well as a $7,000 fine for Holmes Beach, Fla.’s WLLD for a morning conversation involving an apparent sex act between a man and woman.

Federal broadcast-indecency laws outlaw discussion of sexual or excretory organs and activities or other patently offensive material from the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The FCC stopped short of fining Bono or NBC and affiliates, but FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the reversal of policy "sends a signal to the industry that the gratuitous use of such vulgar language on broadcast television will not be tolerated."

Though Stern's radio show is syndicated on more than 40 stations nationwide, the FCC limited it to the market where the complaint against the show originated for the July 2001 broadcast.

So far the year has been marked by a Bush Administration agenda to sanitize the airwaves of conversations on sex and the use of profanity.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives this year have held numerous hearings on obscenity matters over the public airwaves and are about to pass legislation that would increase the maximum indecency fine to $500,000 for each violation, up from $27,500 now, among other things.

Even without the new legislation, which the Bush Administration signaled it will sign, the FCC has boosted the dollar amount of fines by beginning to assess $27,500 for each indecent utterance and for each station on which it was aired.