Six-Figure Fines For Four-Letter Words Worry Broadcasters

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Last month's tenfold increase in broadcast indecency fines has sent radio and television stations and media giants scurrying to protect themselves, as the cost of uttering a dirty word over the air has turned a minor annoyance into a major business expense.

The new law is a boon for companies that make time-delay machines for broadcasters, which are designed to catch offensive language before it hits the airwaves, and a potentially powerful reason for performers, directors and producers to take their talent to cable and satellite outlets, where federal decency standards do not apply.

Since President Bush signed a law in June upping the maximum Federal Communications Commission indecency fine to $325,000, business has spiked at California-based Prime Image Inc., which makes an electronic box that lets television stations edit out offensive language. Orders for the device have jumped to nearly three dozen from an average of less than one per day, and the company has increased production to keep up.

Other repercussions from the escalating crackdown on broadcast indecency: On-air personalities at one radio giant are contractually obligated to pay indecency fines if they say anything that causes their stations to be penalized. Lawyers at another radio company are advising superstar deejays on what material to avoid on air. Public television, still puzzling over a March fine for a Martin Scorsese-produced documentary, is sending periodic legal advice to its member stations.

One stand-up comedian took out an indecency-liability policy on himself. Another said he was forced to sign a waiver before he went on the air at a radio station, promising to pay any indecency fine that might result from his appearance.

Parent groups pressured Congress to do something after the brief exposure of singer Janet Jackson's right breast during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Members of Congress quickly drafted bills to raise the amount the FCC could fine radio and television stations for broadcasting indecent material.

But bills in both houses stalled in 2004 and 2005. This May, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) picked up one version of the legislation and sped it through the Senate. The House passed it soon after, and on June 15, Bush signed it into law, raising the ceiling on indecency fines from $32,500.

Under the law, cable channels such as MTV and HBO and satellite radio companies such as Sirius and XM remain unpoliced by the federal government.

Advocates of the higher penalties said small fines had not deterred big broadcast companies, such as CBS and Fox, from airing indecent material. In addition to raising the ceiling for a single instance of indecency, the law allows the FCC to fine a broadcaster as much as $3 million a day for multiple violations.

"This is like a blessing for us," said Prime Image chief executive Peter J. Jegou. The company's devices, which provide a time delay and a "dump button" to zap offensive language and images, cost $9,000 for standard-definition television and $12,000 for a high-definition version. "People are saying, 'Oh, for $12,000, we can avoid a $325,000 fine?' You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out."

The same is true at Symetrix Inc., which makes a $2,399 device that allows radio stations to delay their broadcasts to catch objectionable material. "We'd been wondering what was going on," said Dan Gallagher, executive vice president of global sales and marketing for the Mountlake Terrace, Wash., company. "Sales have been skyrocketing."

Broadcast companies are taking further measures protect themselves by training their talent and cutting them loose at the first sign of trouble. Radio giants such as Clear Channel Communications Inc. have adopted "zero-tolerance" policies for on-air personalities, meaning that they can be fired for offensive language even before an FCC fine is levied.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company