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Viacom Settles Outstanding FCC Fines

$3.5 Million Agreement Erases Proposed Radio Indecency Penalties

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2004; Page E01

Media giant Viacom Inc. has agreed to pay a record $3.5 million to erase a number of proposed radio indecency fines leveled by the Federal Communications Commission, including one against the "Opie & Anthony Show" and another against shock jock Howard Stern.

The agreement covers indecency violations committed at 16 of Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting radio stations. It also would erase all pending listener complaints. The company is fighting a separate $550,000 fine against CBS television stations that the FCC proposed for Janet Jackson's breast-baring Super Bowl halftime show performance.


The biggest fine covered in the settlement was spurred by an August 2002 broadcast of the "Opie & Anthony Show." (Diane Bondareff -- AP)

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"We have now resolved all outstanding matters before the FCC related to indecency except for the Super Bowl," Viacom said in a statement. "While we deeply regret the incident involving Janet Jackson, we believe that a government fine for an unintentional broadcast is unfair and unwarranted and we are challenging that decision."

The biggest fine covered in the settlement was spurred by an August 2002 broadcast of the "Opie & Anthony Show" in which the hosts, since fired and now employed by XM Satellite Radio, aired what the FCC described as a "couple engaged in actual or simulated sexual activity inside [New York's] St. Patrick's Cathedral while the program hosts . . . discussed that activity on the air."

The settlement also includes a $27,500 fine proposed against Infinity's WKRK in Detroit for a July 2001 Stern show involving discussions of oral sex. Stern is employed by Infinity, though he recently signed a $500 million deal with Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. to take his show there when his Infinity contract expires in January 2006.

Complaints to the FCC, Congress and broadcasters have skyrocketed over the past two years, as viewers have become increasingly vocal about what they view as the rise in racy and vulgar content on radio and television. Some advocacy groups, such as the Parents Television Council, have mounted campaigns against shows they find offensive.

Federal regulations say that broadcasters who rely on public airwaves cannot air content involving sexual or excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to be watching. No such regulations cover content on pay cable or satellite television and radio.

Bills in each house of Congress would allow the FCC to raise its maximum indecency fine from $32,500 to as much as $500,000 per incident.

In October, the FCC proposed fining 169 Fox television stations a total of $1.2 million for an April 2003 episode of "Married by America" that featured whipped-cream-covered strippers and digitally obscured nudity.

In its statement, Viacom said it would try to "safeguard live broadcasts, such as cut-aways, and video and audio delays," that would prevent indecent material from airing.

The FCC settlement with Viacom follows a $1.7 million June deal with Clear Channel Communications Inc. and a $300,000 August agreement with Emmis Communications Corp. to settle indecency fines and complaints against each company's radio stations.

Also yesterday, the FCC denied indecency complaints against three television programs, all since canceled, saying that even though the material met some of the agency's indecency criteria, it was presented in a context that was not patently offensive and therefore not indecent.

Dismissed were complaints against three October 2003 episodes of NBC's "Coupling" that included dialogue laced with sexual innuendo, a June 2003 episode of Fox's "Keen Eddie" that involved trafficking of horse semen on the black market, and two October 2002 episodes of the WB's "Off Centre," which featured discussion of male genitalia and a stopped-up toilet. Both of the latter complaints were filed by the Parents Television Council.

"The FCC has attempted to hide this decision behind the holiday weekend. We are not going to allow that to happen," said L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Parents Television Council.

FCC commissioners Kevin J. Martin, a Republican, and Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, disagreed with their three colleagues and said the "Off Centre" episodes should have been found indecent.

"In the past, if similar references, in similar contexts, have been made on radio shows, the Commission has fined the radio station," Martin wrote in a statement. "I believe the Commission should apply the same standard to television and radio broadcasts."


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