Monday, April 19, 2004

Three of the nation’s biggest media companies challenged the government’s crackdown on broadcasting indecent material yesterday, joining activists and performers in protesting a Federal Communications Commission decision that opponents said is stifling free speech on the airwaves.

Viacom Inc., the parent company of CBS and the Infinity Broadcasting Corp. radio chain, and Fox Entertainment Group Inc., the parent of the Fox network, signed a petition asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reverse its March 18 ruling against musician Bono’s use of an expletive during last year’s broadcast of the Golden Globes ceremony.

Until now, the broadcasters largely have appeared humbled by the government’s crackdown on indecency, which intensified after Janet Jackson’s breast was briefly exposed during CBS’ Feb. 1 broadcast of the Super Bowl halftime show.

“This is the first comprehensive effort to explain to the FCC how broad and ill-conceived their direction is,” said Robert Corn-Revere, the lawyer for the group that filed the petition, which also includes activist groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and performers such as comedian Margaret Cho.

National Broadcasting Co. Inc., which aired the annual Golden Globes ceremony on its NBC network, filed a separate petition. The Wall Street Journal published a stinging opinion piece yesterday by Robert C. Wright, NBC’s chairman and chief executive.

“Ultimately, we have much less to fear from obscene, indecent or profane content than we do from an overzealous government willing to limit First Amendment protections and censor creative free expression. That would be indecent,” Mr. Wright wrote.

ABC did not join the petition because it hasn’t been cited by the FCC for indecent programming, officials said.

The decision by the big media companies to challenge the FCC’s Bono decision signals a strategic shift, several industry analysts said. Executives originally dismissed the FCC’s post-Super Bowl crackdown as election-year politics, but increasingly are worried about the agency’s long-term direction, the analysts said.

“The broadcasters are sending a cautionary message that restricting the First Amendment will not be productive for them,” said Blair Levin, a media analyst for investment banker Legg Mason Inc. and a former FCC staffer.

An FCC spokeswoman declined comment. Once the agency reviews a petition challenging one of its decisions, it must decide whether to reverse or reaffirm it.

Mr. Corn-Revere said the commissioners’ actions have prompted broadcasters to abandon live programming and have forced them to drop or edit songs such as the Who’s “Who Are You” and Sheryl Crow’s “A Change Would Do You Good.”

Even public broadcasting has been affected, he said, noting that PBS felt it had to edit some of the work by poet Piri Thomas out of a documentary on his life.

“The FCC is now setting itself up as a national censorship board, seeking to impose its version of morality on the American public,” said Chris Hansen, an ACLU staff attorney.

Bono, lead singer for the rock group U2, used an expletive when he said, “This is really, really … brilliant” while accepting an award during NBC’s January 2003 broadcast of the Golden Globes ceremony, sparking hundreds of complaints to the FCC.

The agency’s enforcement bureau later determined that the word was not profane because it did not refer to a sexual act in the context in which Bono used it.

Under FCC rules, broadcasters cannot air material containing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children might tune in.

The FCC commissioners overruled the bureau’s Bono decision on March 18, but they did not impose a fine because they never had stated that any use of the expletive violated the agency’s rules.

In addition to overruling the bureau’s Bono decision, the FCC also has issued a slew of heavy fines against broadcasters, primarily aimed at radio stations that air adult-oriented programs such as “The Howard Stern Show.”

The Senate is expected to pass a bill to toughen penalties against broadcasting indecent material, perhaps as early as next month. The House passed a similar bill earlier this year that has been endorsed by President Bush.

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