Telenovelas are the popular programming staple of Spanish-language television giant Univision. Melodramatic and exaggerated, by turns steamy and violent, the dramas are ratings and revenue gold.
What they are not, however -- according to the Federal Communications Commission -- is educational childrens' programming.
The FCC is preparing to impose a record $24 million fine against Univision Communications, even as the government's authority to police the airwaves is being challenged in two courts.
Univision will be fined for failing to comply with federal regulations that require television broadcasters to devote a portion of their programming to educational and informational shows aimed at children, said an FCC source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the commission has not voted on the fine -- although it is expected to be approved soon.
Univision attempted to pass off youth-oriented soap operas as educational fare for youngsters, according to the source.
After complaints about Univision's children's programming were raised by the United Church of Christ during license-renewal proceedings for a Univision television station in 2005, the FCC investigated and found that 24 Univision stations had failed to meet their children's programming requirements for 116 weeks, from 2004 to 2006, the source said.
To keep their FCC-issued broadcast licenses, stations are required by the agency to air a minimum of three hours of programming per week aimed at educating or informing young viewers.
The proposed fine, which averages about $8,600 per violation per station, was reported in yesterday's editions of the New York Times. Univision has agreed to pay the fine to gain FCC approval of the broadcaster's $12 billion sale to private-equity investors, the source said.
The Univision penalty would be nearly eight times greater than the largest-ever fine imposed against a broadcaster -- a $3.5 million judgment against Viacom Inc. in 2004 to settle a number of indecency violations, including those by radio "shock jock" Howard Stern. Prior to the Univision case, the FCC's largest single fine against a corporation was a $9 million ruling against Qwest Communications International in 2004 for allegedly colluding with competitors.
Unlike indecency issues, children's programming has been lightly policed by the FCC. Such programming, however, is of keen interest to FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin. One broadcast industry source said he believed "a $24 million fine will certainly cause people to sit up and take notice." Further, the source speculated, the fine could put Spanish-language broadcasters -- which largely have flown under the FCC's radar -- on notice that their radio and television programs now will be scrutinized for possible indecency violations too.
A spokeswoman for Univision declined to comment on the matter yesterday.
The telenovela in question is "Complices al Rescate," the story of 11-year-old identical twin girls who swap identities.
The FCC's ruling against Univision comes as two other television broadcasters -- CBS and News Corp.'s Fox network -- are appealing FCC indecency rulings in federal courts.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York is expected to rule soon on Fox's case, in which the FCC said that profanities uttered by Cher and reality-TV star Nicole Richie during programs in 2002 and 2003 were indecent, though the agency proposed no fines. Fox says the FCC overstepped its bounds in declaring the incident indecent.
And in Philadelphia's U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, CBS is appealing a $550,000 FCC fine imposed after the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl, broadcast on CBS, in which singer Janet Jackson's right breast was briefly exposed. CBS is arguing that the FCC's decisions on broadcast indecency are inconsistent.
Regardless of the courts' rulings, either or both cases might be appealed to the Supreme Court.
The United Church of Christ, which advocates for children's television programming, applauded the expected FCC fine against Univision. Former FCC commissioner Gloria Tristani headed the denomination's Office of Communication when the complaints against Univision were filed.
"This a tremendous victory for all of our children," the Rev. Robert Chase, the UCC's communications director, said in a statement. " . . . This action by the FCC sends a clear signal that media conglomerates must act in the public interest."
Univision's reach in the Spanish-language audience is unrivaled by any English-language broadcaster. The company owns 62 Univision and TeleFutura television stations in the United States and Puerto Rico, including D.C.-based WMDO-47.
In addition, the Univision network reaches nearly all Spanish-speaking U.S. households, and its Galavision cable network reaches 5.9 million subscribers. Further, the company is the largest Spanish-language radio broadcaster, with 73 stations in the United States and Puerto Rico, and it owns three music labels.