WASHINGTON — The government is renewing its crackdown on indecent television, proposing a total of $3.9 million in new fines while upholding its $550,000 fine against CBS stations for the Janet Jackson breast exposure at the Super Bowl.
The biggest proposed fine issued yesterday by the Federal Communications Commission was for $3.6 million — a record — against dozens of CBS stations and affiliates. The FCC said an episode of the CBS crime drama "Without a Trace" that aired in December 2004 was indecent, citing a graphic depiction of "teenage boys and girls participating in a sexual orgy."
CBS objected, saying the program "featured an important and socially relevant storyline warning parents to exercise greater supervision of their teenage children."
The network can appeal. The company has 30 days to ask the FCC for reconsideration and explain why the 111 CBS stations and affiliates should not be held liable. The maximum indecency fine is $32,500 per incident.
The proposed fine was among a batch of decisions from the agency stemming from more than 300,000 complaints it received concerning nearly 50 TV shows broadcast between 2002 and 2005.
The FCC also affirmed its previous $550,000 fine against 20 of the network's stations for the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" two years ago, rejecting an appeal by CBS.
Additional fines totaling about $300,000 were proposed for several other broadcasts, including an episode of "The Surreal Life 2" on The WB and an episode of a Spanish-language talk show, "The Fernando Hidalgo Show," on a Miami station.
These were the first fines issued under FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, clearing a backlog of investigations into indecency complaints. The commission issued no fines last year.
"These decisions, taken both individually and as a whole, demonstrate the commission's continued commitment to enforcing the law prohibiting the airing of obscene, indecent and profane material," Martin said in a statement.
Responding to other complaints, the commission found that Fox Television Network had violated decency standards during the 2003 Billboard Music Awards. During the broadcast, reality-show star Nicole Richie uttered the "F" word and a common vulgarity for excrement.
But the FCC declined to issue a fine for the program because at the time of the broadcast existing precedent indicated the commission would not take action against isolated use of expletives, the decision said.
While in the past it may have been unclear what would result in a fine, the ruling from the FCC appears to put broadcasters on notice that they could indeed face fines for the "S" word.
A 2004 decision from the FCC regarding the "F" word — uttered by rock star Bono during a Golden Globe Awards ceremony — made clear that virtually any use of that expletive was inappropriate.
The commission dismissed complaints against a number of shows, including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons."
Federal law and FCC rules ban radio and over-the-air television stations from airing obscene material, such as describing sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, at any time. The rules also bar stations from broadcasting indecent material — references to sex or excretions — between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children might be more likely to be in the audience.
Though the current maximum fine is $32,500 per incident, some congressional lawmakers have called for boosting the penalty to as high as $500,000. The rules do not apply to cable or satellite.
The agency's proposed fine for "Without a Trace" covers broadcasts aired at 9 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones.