Broadcasters Nailed $4.5 Million for FCC Swear Jar

The FCC cleaned out its backlog of indecency complaints this week and levied a record-setting raft of fines in the process. A previously proposed fine of $550,000 against CBS over Janet Jackson's Super Bowl flash dance was unanimously upheld. The network and 111 of its affiliates also took it on the chin to the tune of $3.6 million in proposed fines over an episode of the crime drama, "Without a Trace." Another $355,000 in fines were proposed for six other programs that elicited complaints at specific stations.

An episode of "The Surreal Life 2" depicting a porn star pool party drew a $27,500 proposed fine for the WB affiliate in Washington, D.C., for example, because that's where the complaint was filed. A racy sex scene in the film "Con El Corazón En La Mano" drew a proposed $32,500 fine for KWHY, NBC's Telemundo station in Los Angeles.

Both represent the maximum allowable fine at the time of the broadcasts: $27,500 for programs aired before Sept. 7, 2004; $32,500 for those after.

WJAN, a station in Miami owned by Sherjan Broadcasting Co., drew a $32,500 proposed fine for an episode of the "Fernando Hidalgo Show" in which a woman shakes her mostly naked breasts at the camera.

A third Spanish-language program, "Video Musicales," which aired on WSJU in San Juan, Puerto Rico, racked up a total of $220,000 in proposed fines for 14 broadcasts of dirty music videos.

And because Irish rock musician Bono had to go and say "effin' brilliant" when the band won a Golden Globe Award three years ago, a California PBS affiliate is facing a $15,000 fine. The penalty was issued over a Martin Scorsese documentary about blues musicians who happen to express themselves somewhat like Irish rock musicians. The program, "The Blues: Godfathers and Sons," contained what the FCC notice referred to as "S-Words" and "F-Words."

KTVI in St. Louis was hit with a $27,500 proposed fine for the move, "The Pursuit of D.B Cooper," because the legendary skyjacker had a likewise affinity for the language of blues musicians.

Several more shows were found "indecent and/or profane," but received no fines. During the "The 2002 Billboard Music Awards," Cher joined the brotherhood of blues and Irish rock musicians, and during the same show the following year, Nicole Richie did so as well. Episodes of "NYPD Blue" and "The Early Show" were cited for similar vulgarities, but, since the four incidents happened before the FCC took a bar of soap to Bono's mouth, no fines were levied.

Several more complaints against episodes of various sitcoms, dramas, cartoons, news programs, a Vikings-Packers game and a couple of commercials were dismissed.

CBS, which airs "Without a Trace," said it would "pursue all remedies to affirm our legal rights." NBC also reportedly said it would fight the fine drawn by its Telemundo station.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin issued a brief statement concerning the actions.

"Congress has long prohibited the broadcasting of indecent and profane material and the courts have upheld challenges to these standards. But the number of complaints received by the commission has risen year after year. They have grown from hundreds, to hundreds of thousands... I believe the commission has a legal responsibility to respond to them and resolve them in a consistent and effective manner. So I am pleased that with the decisions released today the commission is resolving hundreds of thousands of complaints against various broadcast licensees related to their televising of 49 different programs."

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein dissented in part to the ruling because only CBS O&Os were fined in the Super Bowl case.

"I dissented in part to that case because I believed we needed to apply the same sanction to every station that aired the offending material," he wrote.

Adelstein also thought the commission pushed the envelope a bit too far on the basis of the Bono decision.

"The perilous course taken today is evident in the approach to the acclaimed Martin Scorsese documentary, 'The Blues: Godfathers and Sons.' It is clear from a common sense viewing of the program that coarse language is a part of the culture of the individuals being portrayed. To accurately reflect their viewpoint and emotions about blues music requires airing of certain material that, if prohibited, would undercut the ability of the filmmaker to convey the reality of the subject of the documentary. This contextual reasoning is consistent with our decisions in 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Schindler's List.'" (Commissioner Adelstein issued three separate statements that are available at

Expletives in those films were considered acceptable, based on the artistic merits of the works.