FCC Aims to Speed Evaluation of Indecency Complaints

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

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.

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.

Under a proposal by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the FCC could fine broadcasters up to $500,000 per violation. The bill includes a provision that, after three violations, a broadcaster must have a license revocation hearing. Also, it would enable the FCC to fine performers up to $500,000 for willfully violating the agency's indecency rules. Finally, Upton's bill would force the FCC to complete each indecency investigation within 180 days. Members plan to begin reviewing and marking up the proposed legislation today.

Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) introduced a version that would raise the maximum fine to $325,000, with a cap of $3 million a day per broadcaster, to protect smaller broadcasters not owned by large corporations.

"We must have punitive damages to give some teeth to the current fine structure so there will be meaningful deterrents to broadcasters who may air indecent or obscene broadcasts," Brownback said in a statement.

Citizen pressure to clean up the airwaves will continue in 2005, pledged the man who organized many of last year's complaints.

"We will continue this campaign and do everything in our power to shed light on the utterly incomprehensible polices of the FCC," said L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Parents Television Council, which monitors television programming and encourages its more than 1 million members to inundate the FCC with indecency complaints via e-mail. In the days following last year's Super Bowl, PTC members sent a half-million complaints to the FCC.

Last week, Bozell's group released the results of a study it conducted on one of its favorite targets -- MTV. The group studied the music channel's shows and videos aired during the third week of March 2004, when the Viacom Inc.-owned cable network was running its spring break programming.

The PTC watched 171 hours during the several-day period and found what it called a "staggering" 1,548 "sexual scenes" containing 2,881 verbal sexual references and 3,056 depictions of sex or nudity. It also found 1,518 uses of unedited "foul language" and an additional 3,127 words or phrases that were "bleeped out," presumably profanity.

"The report unfairly and inaccurately represents what we do at MTV day in and day out," MTV said in a statement. "This report takes things out of context for the sake of sensationalizing a tally and uses random fragments of dated studies to fulfill an agenda and misinform the public."

Bozell said his group will use the MTV study to push Congress to force the cable and satellite industries to adopt an "a la carte" pricing plan, meaning subscribers pay only for the channels they want because consumers should not have to pay for channels they may find objectionable, he said. He said he expects bipartisan support.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company