FCC Slashes Fox TV Penalty

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Federal Communications Commission erased nearly all of a proposed $1.2 million indecency fine against a number of Fox television stations yesterday, saying the Rupert Murdoch-owned network should be fined for airing an offensive television show only in markets where viewers complained about it.

Instead of ordering all 169 stations that aired it to pay the larger fine, the FCC ordered 13 Fox-owned and -affiliated stations to pay a total of $91,000 in indecency fines for broadcasting an episode of the long-canceled reality show "Married by America" nearly five years ago.

In yesterday's order, the FCC turned down a Fox claim that said the April 7, 2003, show -- which featured digitally obscured nudity and whipped-cream-covered strippers -- was not indecent.

The FCC has a five-year statute of limitations on indecency enforcement; had the agency waited until after April 8 to rule, it could not have collected any fines.

Even though Fox, which is owned by Murdoch's News Corp., said it disagrees with yesterday's ruling and will consider its options -- such as an appeal to a federal court -- the network benefited from an FCC policy reversal last year that limited the agency's sweeping authority and that closely links indecency fines to viewer complaints.

The FCC first took up the case of "Married by America" in 2004, when the agency ruled that the episode was indecent. It proposed a $7,000 fine for each of the stations -- a total of $1.2 million. It was the first time the agency had proposed fining Fox's entire affiliate chain for an indecency violation.

In yesterday's ruling, the FCC said it would fine only the Fox stations in markets that had sent complaints to the agency about the episode. Among those stations is Washington's WTTG (Channel 5), as well as stations in Detroit, Minneapolis, Tampa, Roanoke, Des Moines, Yakima, Wash., and Charleston, W.Va.

The other 156 Fox-owned and -affiliated stations got off the hook. The FCC said it now practices a "policy of restrained enforcement in indecency proceedings."

The "Married by America" ruling is the second issued by the FCC in the past month that took years to complete. The FCC proposed the fine against Fox in October 2004, and Fox responded that December, meaning it took the agency more than three years to reach yesterday's decision.

In late January, the FCC proposed a total of $1.43 million in fines against 52 ABC-owned and -affiliated stations for airing a Feb. 25, 2003, episode of "NYPD Blue" that featured full female dorsal nudity and the side of one bare breast.

It took nearly five years from broadcast to FCC decision, but less than a month for the FCC to turn down ABC's response and order a reduced payment of $1.24 million against 45 stations, again omitting markets that had not complained about the program. ABC paid the fines but is appealing the FCC's decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York.

The FCC declined to comment yesterday on why the actions have taken as long as they have.

Under the FCC's indecency statutes, over-the-air radio and television stations are prohibited from broadcasting "patently offensive" material of a sexual or excretory nature from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., when children are most likely to be watching. The FCC's indecency statutes do not extend to cable and satellite programming.

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