• FCC's 2005 Indecency Fines: $0.00
  • January 13, 2006
  • Law Firm: Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • If last year is any indication, the Federal Communications Commission has retired from its job as chief prude. After issuing a record $7.9 million in indecency fines in 2004, the agency did not propose a single penny of fines in 2005.

    The year 2004 kicked off with the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" involving the exposure of singer Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl halftime show. That got the FCC's attention, and it fined 20 CBS stations that aired the exposure a total of $550,000. The rest of the year saw the agency reach a number of million-dollar-plus fines and settlements of indecency investigations with television and radio stations.

    Last year's Super Bowl halftime show was much more tame, featuring former Beatle and 60-year-old British knight Paul McCartney, who promised to remain fully clothed during the show (and did). Still, some observers anticipated continued agency vigilance when Kevin Martin became chairman in March 2005. He had pushed for stiffer enforcement of federal broadcast decency limits as a Commissioner.

    As reported in the January 31, 2005, issue of [email protected], the FCC's interest in regulating indecency appeared to wane early in 2005, when it rejected 36 complaints against shows like Friends, The Simpsons, and Gilmore Girls. Martin may have been hamstrung in part because he has presided over an agency that's evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. But he has said to expect more FCC action in this arena in 2006. Congress is also expected to consider whether to try to put some restraints on cable and satellite broadcasts, which arguably receive more constitutional protection because they are subscription services.

    Ever hopeful, the conservative watchdog group Parents Television Council, which filed more than 99 percent of the indecency complaints in 2003 and 2004, kept up its onslaught of complaints during 2005. The PTC's targets included an episode of CBS's "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" that included references to abuse of a man's private parts, as well as profanity during ABC's broadcast of the Live 8 concert. The group also took issue with episodes of "NCIS" on CBS and Fox's "The Inside." Federal rules bar television and radio stations from airing obscene material and limit indecent content, like sexual material or profanity, to late-night hours when children are less likely to be watching.

    Significance: For whatever reason, the FCC seems to have cooled to the notion of its role as the decency police. It will be interesting to see what happens this year, since a number of factors could account for the shift, in addition to the makeup of the Commission. Some observers have suggested that broadcasters and advertisers have been especially wary of airing anything controversial in the wake of the FCC's response to the 2004 Super Bowl and other incidents.