Thursday, April 1, 2004

Soap operas have become a potential target in the Federal Communications Commission’s crackdown on broadcast indecency, according to a key official who said the programs might be too “steamy” for daytime television.

Michael J. Copps, the FCC commissioner who has led the agency’s campaign against adult-oriented radio programs, told reporters Wednesday that the FCC should review whether soap operas violate the agency’s indecency prohibitions, according to Television Week, an industry trade publication.

Mr. Copps, one of two Democrats on the five-member panel, said he stumbled across a racy soap-opera scene while channel-surfing recently.

“It was pretty steamy stuff for the middle of the afternoon,” Mr. Copps said.

Under FCC rules, over-the-air television and radio stations cannot broadcast material involving sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children might tune in. The FCC does not regulate content that airs on cable and satellite television.

Mr. Copps made his remarks after a National Association of Broadcasters’ summit on “responsible programming.” The daylong meeting was closed to the press, although Mr. Copps — one of several FCC officials who attended — met with reporters afterward.

Mr. Copps could not be reached yesterday because he was traveling, an aide said. The commissioner’s remarks do not necessarily mean he will seek an investigation into soap operas or daytime television in general, the aide said.

FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell declined comment when he was asked at the summit about Mr. Copps’ remarks, according to a transcript provided by his press office.

Representatives for the other FCC commissioners and ABC, CBS and NBC, all of which air soap operas, did not return telephone calls or declined comment yesterday.

The government’s scrutiny of TV and radio programs has intensified since Justin Timberlake removed part of Janet Jackson’s top, briefly exposing her breast, during the Super Bowl halftime show on Feb. 1.

Since then, the FCC has announced a new round of fines against racy radio programs, and the nation’s largest broadcasters have adopted tougher standards against airing material that the government deems offensive.

Legislation that dramatically would raise fines against broadcasters is moving through Congress.

Soap operas largely have escaped public criticism, although the programs have started to show more skin in recent years.

CBS representatives have denied published reports that the recent firing of “Guiding Light” producer John Conboy was linked to the new sensitivities about indecency. Mr. Conboy was dismissed in February, about a week after the show aired a scene in which a character pulled down her boyfriend’s underpants, revealing his bare bottom.

The amount of sex featured on daytime serials is usually blown out of proportion, according to Lynn Leahey, editorial director of Soap Opera Digest and Soap Opera Weekly, the industry’s leading publications.

Most viewers watch the programs because they are interested in stories about romance and family relationships, she said.

“The bottom line is, these shows are about romance, not sex. It’s always been that way; it will always be that way,” Ms. Leahey said.

The nine daytime dramas draw about 30 million viewers a week, but ratings have fallen steadily in the past two decades as more women — the traditional audience for soap operas — have entered the work force. The ratings only measure household viewers and not people who watch the serials on college campuses and during their office lunch breaks.

An FCC spokesman was unable to provide the number of complaints it has received about daytime television in recent years.

A recent “Oprah Winfrey Show” installment that featured a sexually explicit discussion has generated about 700 complaints, the spokesman said, although that might be because radio host Howard Stern has been urging his listeners to complain about Miss Winfrey’s show.

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