The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) leveled a record US$3.6 million fine on Wednesday against television stations that broadcast an episode of Without a Trace in December 2004, with the agency saying the CBS show inappropriately suggested a teenage sexual orgy.
The program was among nine cited on Wednesday for fines totaling about US$4 million on agency accusations of violating decency standards between February 2002 and March last year. The fines are the first indecency actions by the commission since Kevin Martin, a Republican, became chairman last March.
FCC officials said the fines, which can be appealed, were intended in part to make clear what type of material is allowed under FCC standards. The decisions were specific to the programs cited, and did not provide more general comments.
The orders were notable for the breadth of programming cited, from Spanish-language music videos to live award shows. Complaints against 28 programs were dismissed, but 20 shows were found to have violated FCC decency standards. One show, NYPD Blue, was cited for indecency violations in eight separate episodes. Eleven programs were found to be indecent but were not fined.
The orders are in response to more than 300,000 consumer complaints about programming that viewers found indecent, profane or obscene. Many complaints are lodged in large numbers by organized groups and not by independent viewers.
CBS defended the Without a Trace episode, saying the episode contained "an important and socially relevant storyline warning parents to exercise greater supervision of their teenage children."
The FCC also upheld a US$550,000 fine leveled at CBS for the Janet Jackson breast-baring incident during the halftime show at the 2004 Super Bowl. In a statement last night, CBS said it continued to disagree that the incident was "legally indecent."
"More than two years ago we apologized to viewers for the inappropriate and unexpected halftime incident," the statement said. "We will continue to pursue all remedies necessary to affirm our legal rights. Today's decision by the FCC is just another step in the process."
Michael Powell, the former chairman of the commission, was criticized for a hard line on indecency cases, but Martin appears to be taking an even tougher stance. He is also promising to speed up the FCC 's response time, vowing to address complaints within nine months of being lodged, said Tamara Lipper, a spokeswoman for the FCC.
Lipper said the orders could give broadcasters guidance in what is appropriate programming.
"The commission is committed to a restrained, effective and consistent approach," she said.
Tim Winter, the executive director of the Parents Television Council, an advocacy group founded by conservative commentator L. Brent Bozell III, said the group believed that the law was applied properly "in every instance."
E. Christopher Murray, a civil rights lawyer at Reisman, Peirez & Reisman in Garden City, New York, said the decisions might have a chilling effect on broadcasters.
"The FCC, in its mind, is getting tougher on these kinds of programs," Murray said.