The Federal Communications Commission yesterday proposed a record-setting $1.2 million fine against 169 Fox television stations for an April 2003 broadcast of "Married by America" that featured whipped-cream-covered strippers and digitally obscured nudity.
It is the agency's most recent ruling in its stepped-up effort to police radio and television. Complaints to the FCC are at an all-time high as viewers and lawmakers object to the increasing raunchiness of over-the-air radio and television, and broadcasters compete to keep pace with edgier cable programming.
Yesterday's action against Fox and its affiliates was the largest for indecency on television. It was the first of several expected indecency rulings, including what is likely to be a multimillion-dollar agreement with Viacom Inc.'s radio stations to settle violations by Howard Stern and others.
The FCC regulates radio and television broadcasts that transmit over the free public airwaves, but it has no authority over cable and satellite programming that viewers pay for. Last week, Stern announced that he would move to satellite radio when his contract is up, in part to escape FCC scrutiny.
Since October 2003, the FCC has proposed $3.8 million in fines against radio and television broadcasters for violations of the agency's indecency rules, which state that programming relating to sexual or excretory functions may not be broadcast between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to be in the audience.
For all of 2002, the FCC proposed only $99,400 in indecency fines; in 2001, $91,000. Before that, the largest indecency settlement was a $1.7 million deal in 1995 to settle indecency charges prompted by Stern.
Within weeks, the agency plans to announce a settlement of $2 million to $5 million with Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting radio stations, FCC sources said. The settlement would cover nearly $500,000 in already-proposed fines and several potential violations under investigation. The settlement would be separate from September's $550,000 proposed fine against Viacom-owned CBS television stations for singer Janet Jackson's breast-baring incident during the Super Bowl halftime show.
The Viacom radio settlement would exceed the $1.7 million paid by radio giant Clear Channel Communications Corp. in June in a similar agreement, said the FCC sources, who would not speak for attribution because the settlement is not final. Viacom declined to comment.
The flurry of television rulings is prompted by a license-renewal process that began Oct. 1. The FCC is trying to settle or clear as many television indecency cases as possible so they will not hold up license-renewal applications. For example, the FCC is preparing to rule that some shows viewers complained about, such as NBC's "Coupling," did not violate indecency standards.
Unlike the Super Bowl fines -- which were levied against CBS's 20 owned stations and not the more than 200 affiliate stations that also broadcast the show -- the fines for airing the episode of the short-lived series "Married by America" are proposed against all of Fox's 35 owned and 134 affiliate stations.
The FCC ruled that CBS affiliates had no role in planning the live halftime show and could not have known what might happen. In contrast, the agency said, none of the Fox stations declined to broadcast the taped episode and were therefore culpable. The episode was watched by an estimated 388,000 children age 11 and younger, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Yesterday, the FCC said that even though "Married by America" digitally obscured, or "pixelated" exposed breasts, the pixelation "does little to obscure the overtly sexual and gratuitous nature of the bachelor/bachelorette party scenes," the FCC wrote.
The FCC said the six-minute segment included a variety of sexual activities, including a man in his underwear on all fours being spanked by two topless strippers.
Although the nudity was pixelated, "even a child would have known that the strippers were topless and that sexual activity was being shown," the FCC wrote.
Fox took issue with the FCC's characterization of the episode. "We disagree with the FCC's decision and believe the content was not indecent," Fox spokesman Scott Grogin said last night. Fox still has to decide whether to pay the fine or appeal the ruling.
The FCC limited the Fox fine to $7,000 per station, far less than the $32,500 the law allows. Even though the "Married by America" episode was considered tasteless, the FCC sources said, the indecency judgment was less clear-cut in this case than in others that received higher fines.
One Hollywood executive who works in reality television and agreed to talk only anonymously said viewers have more power to shield their children from scheduled television shows than they do from unexpected commercials for R-rated movies or promotions for local news shows that tout "20 dead, five raped, coming up at 11."
"The FCC is wasting time, and they should recognize that as adults we can be responsible for our children. They should monitor things we don't have control over," the executive said. "It's a Fox show, and people should know what they're getting themselves into."
The agency said it received 159 viewer complaints about "Married by America." In 2003, the FCC said it received 240,000 complaints about 390 television shows.