How the FCC Responds to Indecency Complaints

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 9, 2005 5:27 PM

The indecency process at the FCC begins when the agency receives a viewer or listener complaint about something they saw on television or heard on radio.

Complaints that seem to have merit proceed through a complex back-and-forth between the FCC and broadcaster that can take years. A recording or transcript of the broadcast is requested and the broadcaster typically denies it is indecent. Recently, the agency also has been requesting e-mails and other material that could relate to the incident. "It's Spitzer-like in its approach," said one radio executive who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of FCC reprisal. The reference was to the aggressive prosecutorial style of New York's Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer.

If the FCC rules the broadcast indecent, it proposes a fine. The broadcaster can ask the FCC to reconsider. If the FCC sticks to its ruling, it issues a "forfeiture notice," or demand for payment. Sometimes, the FCC offers to settle for less. Other times, the FCC gets more than the proposed amount by settling all pending fines against a broadcaster, including those yet to be ruled on.

If the broadcaster still refuses to pay, the matter can be turned over to the Department of Justice.

The process, according to former FCC chairman Reed E. Hundt, "is a lot of bureaucratic frou-frou."

He proposes what he calls a speeding-ticket model for indecency fines: As quickly as possible after the offending broadcast -- preferably, the next day -- the broadcaster is investigated and fined, Hundt said. Such a system would start the appeals process much sooner.

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