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FCC Aims to Speed Evaluation of Indecency Complaints

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2005; Page E01

The Federal Communications Commission is overhauling the system it uses to process complaints about indecency on the public airwaves after struggling to deal with the flood of concerns it received last year over the content of television and radio shows.

The changes come as watchdog groups and others vow to continue to police the airwaves and Congress considers raising the amount of fines that can be levied.

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In 2004, the FCC received 1.07 million complaints about racy or off-color fare, largely spurred by Janet Jackson's brief exposure during the Super Bowl halftime show. The outpouring was enough to buckle the system: In 2000, the agency received just 111 indecency complaints.

The steep escalation forced the agency's enforcement bureau, which reviews grievances and proposes fines, to hire a half-dozen new staffers and to seek temporary help from about a dozen more last year. The agency plans to call in extra help again this year if the volume of complaints warrants.

The bureau also has begun to revise the process it uses to keep tabs on the e-mailed, written and phoned-in complaints when they arrive, creating a new complaint inbox. Advocacy groups complained in the past that the FCC failed to accurately record all the complaints it had received.

Once the complaints are filed, the agency plans to scan the filings promptly to determine whether they warrant action, in hopes of clearing cases more quickly. Critics have accused the FCC of taking too long to rule in the past -- taking as much as two years to decide some cases. Some complaints, for instance, can be dispensed with immediately because they deal with shows on satellite television channels, over which the FCC has no jurisdiction.

FCC commissioners said government scrutiny will continue even though most radio and television broadcasters have toned down their programming to avoid fines -- this year's Super Bowl featured a family-friendly halftime show starring Paul McCartney and commercials that generally kept it clean.

"We don't have the option of letting up," said FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, who has been sharply critical of broadcasters for airing unseemly content. In addition to stiffer fines against broadcasters for violations of the agency's indecency rules, Copps has lobbied for license revocation hearings, saying, "It is our obligation."

FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell -- who during his four-year tenure has proposed nearly $4.3 million in indecency fines, more than all other chairmen combined -- is resigning next month. But a possible replacement is Commissioner Kevin J. Martin, who has been more outspoken than Powell on the issue.

Last year, both houses of Congress crafted legislation that would allow the agency to increase the amount of indecency fines, with one proposal taking it from a maximum of $32,500 to as much as $500,000. The bills stalled before Congress adjourned, but leaders in both houses reintroduced versions at the end of last month.

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