A closer look at broadcast indecency

By The Associated Press
03.23.04

WASHINGTON — If it seems you're hearing fewer four-letter words and less sexually graphic material on radio and TV, it's not your imagination. Regulators are cracking down on indecency, and broadcasters are paying attention.

Some questions and answers about the issue:

Q: What is indecency?

A: Indecent programming means references to sexual or excretory functions. Under federal law and FCC rules, over-the-air radio and TV stations cannot air such material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to tune in. Obscene programming describes or shows sexual conduct in a lewd and offensive way and has no "literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." Such programming is not protected by the First Amendment and cannot be broadcast at any time on over-the-air radio and TV.

Q: Is there a uniform standard for indecency?

A. No. Whether something is deemed indecent is up to the FCC and its investigators. Critics say that leads to random enforcement. To clear up some confusion, FCC ruled last week that use of the "F-word" in virtually all cases would be considered indecent.

Q: What about cable and satellite programming?

A: The FCC has drawn a distinction between over-the-air TV and radio, which are licensed to use the public airwaves and cost nothing to receive, and cable-only channels such as MTV and FX and satellite radio, which come with a fee. The FCC does not regulate cable or satellite content. Some lawmakers have suggested all channels should come under indecency rules since 85% of American viewers subscribe to cable or satellite TV.

Q: What is the penalty for indecency?

A: Broadcast license-holders can be fined a maximum of $27,500, while performers face a maximum penalty of $11,000. The FCC had been fining stations for each program, but commissioners recently said they would begin leveling the fine for each incident. So, for example, a broadcaster airing a program with five indecent utterances or acts could be fined $137,500. The FCC also is empowered to revoke a company's broadcast license for indecency, but never has. In the first three months of 2004, the FCC has proposed $1 million in indecency fines, more than the previous nine years combined, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington watchdog group.

Q: Isn't Congress looking to boost fines?

A: Yes. The House and a Senate committee recently voted to raise the maximum fine for license-holders and performers to $500,000. Supporters say the larger fine is needed to influence the huge companies that own many radio and TV outlets.

Q: Why is indecency getting so much attention now?

A: The short answer is Janet Jackson. When singer Justin Timberlake bared Jackson's right breast during the Super Bowl halftime show, an estimated 90 million people were watching, many of them children. The incident served as a rallying point for religious leaders, parents' groups, lawmakers and others who have bemoaned for years what they say was an unchecked coarsening of the airwaves. They flooded the FCC with a half-million complaints and Congress took note, hastily amending existing bills to more dramatically increase indecency fines.

Q: Are broadcasters doing anything on their own?

A: Yes. Many live programs on CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest chain of radio stations, now are broadcast on a short time delay, giving station engineers enough time to bleep out or cut away from a potentially offensive segment. Clear Channel also has adopted a code of conduct for its personalities, suspended Howard Stern from its six stations that carried him, and paid a record $755,000 indecency fine for broadcasts by the disc jockey known as "Bubba the Love Sponge," who was fired. The broadcast industry plans a March 31 meeting in Washington to discuss indecency.

Q: Does anyone oppose the government's efforts?

A: Those who feel the indecency standards are arbitrary and infringe on First Amendment rights, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. Among the chief critics are performers like Stern, who say an "off" button gives people all the protection they need against racy or off-color subject matter. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is fighting efforts to increase the indecency fines for performers, calling them "particularly egregious assaults on freedom of expression."