The Federal Communications Commission yesterday proposed a record-setting $1.2 million fine against 169 Fox television stations for an April 2003 broadcast of "Married by America" that featured whipped-cream-covered strippers and digitally obscured nudity.
It is the agency's most recent ruling in its stepped-up effort to police radio and television. Complaints to the FCC are at an all-time high as viewers and lawmakers object to the increasing raunchiness of over-the-air radio and television, and broadcasters compete to keep pace with edgier cable programming.
Yesterday's action against Fox and its affiliates was the largest for indecency on television. It was the first of several expected indecency rulings, including what is likely to be a multimillion-dollar agreement with Viacom Inc.'s radio stations to settle violations by Howard Stern and others.
The FCC regulates radio and television broadcasts that transmit over the free public airwaves, but it has no authority over cable and satellite programming that viewers pay for. Last week, Stern announced that he would move to satellite radio when his contract is up, in part to escape FCC scrutiny.
Since October 2003, the FCC has proposed $3.8 million in fines against radio and television broadcasters for violations of the agency's indecency rules, which state that programming relating to sexual or excretory functions may not be broadcast between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to be in the audience.
For all of 2002, the FCC proposed only $99,400 in indecency fines; in 2001, $91,000. Before that, the largest indecency settlement was a $1.7 million deal in 1995 to settle indecency charges prompted by Stern.
Within weeks, the agency plans to announce a settlement of $2 million to $5 million with Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting radio stations, FCC sources said. The settlement would cover nearly $500,000 in already-proposed fines and several potential violations under investigation. The settlement would be separate from September's $550,000 proposed fine against Viacom-owned CBS television stations for singer Janet Jackson's breast-baring incident during the Super Bowl halftime show.
The Viacom radio settlement would exceed the $1.7 million paid by radio giant Clear Channel Communications Corp. in June in a similar agreement, said the FCC sources, who would not speak for attribution because the settlement is not final. Viacom declined to comment.
The flurry of television rulings is prompted by a license-renewal process that began Oct. 1. The FCC is trying to settle or clear as many television indecency cases as possible so they will not hold up license-renewal applications. For example, the FCC is preparing to rule that some shows viewers complained about, such as NBC's "Coupling," did not violate indecency standards.
Unlike the Super Bowl fines -- which were levied against CBS's 20 owned stations and not the more than 200 affiliate stations that also broadcast the show -- the fines for airing the episode of the short-lived series "Married by America" are proposed against all of Fox's 35 owned and 134 affiliate stations.