FCC Issues New Fines for Indecent TV Programming

New fines were issued Wednesday by the Federal Communications Commission. The fines are aimed toward indecent programming on broadcast television.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

MONTAGNE: The Federal Communications Commission has announced new fines for indecent programming on television. It also upheld the $555,000 fine levied against 20 CBS stations for the infamous Janet Jackson incident at the 2004 Super Bowl.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

Yesterday's announcement means CBS stations will collectively bear fines totaling more than $3.6 million for broadcasting a teenage orgy in the crime drama, Without a Trace.

(Soundbite of Clip "Without a Trace")

ULABY: "The scene does not glamorize or glorify teen orgies, in fact, quite the opposite." That's a direct quote from the Parents' Television Council Web site. Still, that media watchdog group rallied thousands of its members to complain about this episode to the FCC.

Tim Winter, the group's executive director, says CBS deliberately crossed a line.

Mr. TIM WINTER (Executive Director, Parents' Television Council): The law says that if you're going to air graphic, sexual or excretory functions, it has to be after 10 o'clock at night, when kids are in bed.

ULABY: Without a Trace did air during the so-called broadcast safe harbor, between six in the morning and 10 at night. The FCC said, while the program contained no nudity, its obvious sexual activities met one of the commission's indecency tests.

Kurt Wimmer is a media lawyer who's represented stations in a number of indecency cases.

Mr. KURT WIMMER (Media Defense Attorney, Covington & Burling): The commission actually said that one reason why they gave it a maximum fine was that the visuals dwelt too long on this reenactment in a way that was beyond what the storyline reasonably required--which frankly, I found a bit chilling because I like to think of our writers and our editors doing the writing and the editing, not folks in Washington.

ULABY: The FCC also fined a public television station for broadcasting, during the safe harbor, a PBS documentary about the blues.

(Soundbite of man singing blues music)

Unidentified Man: (singing) Well, you know I'm hoochie, coochie boy. The whole wide...

Mr. JONATHAN ADELSTEIN (Commissioner, FCC): I think that we're going to far when we're going after an acclaimed documentary about the blues being put on PBS under the direction of Martin Scorsese.

ULABY: FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein says the documentary had its share of colorful language. But he felt compelled to write a dissenting opinion to yesterday's action.

Mr. ADELSTEIN: When you talk about the blues, it's hard not to occasionally use some salty language, and that's endemic to the subject. It doesn't allow the documentary maker to be able to express the real feelings of the blues. And when we're getting into that kind of content, I think we're really impinging upon First Amendment fReidoms.

ULABY: It also points to ongoing confusion about what is and isn't okay to broadcast. Yesterday's decision covered about 50 television programs between February 2002 and March 2005. Of those the content of 28 shows was deemed not actionable, including episodes of The Simpsons, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and The Today Show. Broadcasters have long complained about inconsistencies, says Media Lawyer Kurt Wimmer.

Mr. WIMMER: Bono's used the F-word, gets found to be indecent. And Saving Private Ryan used the F-word dozens of times and gets found not to be indecent. So you end up having sort of a conflict, in fact.

ULABY: A conflict that critics say was not clarified by the reams of analysis published yesterday by the FCC.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News, Washington.

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