The Federal Communications Commission’s campaign against broadcasting material it deems indecent has put a chill in the airwaves, a study shows.
The FCC has not issued an indecency fine since Dec. 22, the longest lull in four years, says a report by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.
Changes in the FCC’s leadership is at least partially responsible for the pause, the center said.
But the record settlements the FCC reached last year with Viacom Inc. and Clear Channel Communications Inc. have led to tamer airwaves, the report said.
No matter how you slice it, the dearth of fines this year is eye-opening when you consider that 2004 was the busiest for indecency in the FCC’s history.
The agency proposed 12 indecency fines last year totaling $3.7 million.
Included in this amount: a proposed $550,000 fine against Viacom Inc., the corporate parent of CBS, which triggered the FCC’s indecency crackdown after one of singer Janet Jackson’s breasts was briefly exposed during the network’s telecast of the Super Bowl halftime show.
After the Super Bowl incident, the FCC signed a $3.5 million agreement with Viacom and a $1.75 million agreement with Clear Channel Communications Inc. to settle a series of older indecency complaints against stations owned by the media giants.
The settlement did not cover Viacom’s Super Bowl fine, which is still pending.
In addition to the settlements, Viacom and Clear Channel signed compliance agreements to help them avoid future fines, the center said.
Under the agreement, if the FCC rules that a Clear Channel broadcast is indecent, the company must fire the “offending employees … without delay.”
This has helped chill the airwaves, said John Dunbar, the center’s project manager who wrote the June 30 “Cost of Indecency” report.
“I think what happened with those settlement agreements is that nobody recognized the repercussions that would follow,” Mr. Dunbar said.
The center’s report includes commentary from Jonathan Rintels, a television screenwriter and executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, a group that advocates on behalf of filmmakers, producers and performers.
The settlements created “a giant gray area of potential indecency which can appear to be very arbitrary — and if you venture into that at all you are placing your job on the line and possibly your career,” Mr. Rintels said.
Several of radio’s so-called “shock jocks” have complained that they are forced to pull punches these days. Next year, Howard Stern, perhaps the FCC’s favorite target, plans to move to satellite radio, which is not subject to the government’s standards because it doesn’t use the public airwaves.
The lack of fines this year also can be traced to the “regime change” at the FCC, Mr. Dunbar said.
The five-member panel that oversees the FCC has one vacancy and a new chairman, Kevin J. Martin, who has proceeded cautiously since President Bush appointed him to the job March 18.
Mr. Martin succeeded fellow Republican Michael K. Powell, who has said he was reluctant to wage war on indecency because it clashed with his belief in free speech. Mr. Martin, a four-year FCC veteran, has been one of the agency’s strongest critics of indecency.
Broadcasters may have tamed their programming, but there is still plenty of smut on the airwaves, said Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television Council, which has led the charge against indecency, including flooding the FCC’s e-mail boxes with complaints.
Members of the conservative advocacy group are still filing complaints with the agency, said Mr. Winter, who predicted the FCC will propose more fines before the end of the year.
CPB inquiry expands
An investigation into suspicions of political meddling at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has expanded to include the hiring of the agency’s president, a Democratic lawmaker said.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota said he was told of the investigation in a letter from the corporation’s inspector general, Kenneth Konz.
Mr. Dorgan requested the inquiry after complaints that last month’s selection of Patricia S. Harrison as president and chief executive was rushed and didn’t follow normal protocols.
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