WDBJ Fined $325,000 for Pornographic Screen Shot

WASHINGTON—A Virginia TV station is in hot water for inadvertently broadcasting a pornographic scene obtained from a computer screen shot. WDBJ-DT, the CBS affiliate in Roanoke, was fined $325,000 by the Federal Communications Commission for violating its indecency rules.

The incident occurred July 12, 2012, around 6 p.m., during a news report about an ex-porn star volunteering for the local rescue squad. The three minute, 20 second report on “WBDJ7 at Six” included a web video image of the subject recorded off of a computer screen.

“The website, which was partially displayed along with the video image, is bordered on the right side by boxes showing video clips from other films that do not appear to show the woman who is the subject of the news report,” the FCC’s Notice of Apparent Liability states.“One of these video clips, displayed in a box, contains the image of sexual activity involving manipulation of an erect penis.”

WDBJ said no one caught it because the images in the smaller boxes were not visible on the edit bay monitors. The shooter said he hadn’t noticed them. WDBJ said it found out when the phone started ringing and that the staff immediately pulled the story out of rotation and off of the station’s website.

The station argued that the “extremely fleeting and partial image of a penis during a news story” did not constitute a violation of FCC rules, which it also said were amorphous at best, and unconstitutional at worst.

The commission rejected WDBJ’s position and leveled the maximum fine under its statute, which prohibits the broadcast of “indecent, obscene or profane” content between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. It found the WDBJ clip met its three-pronged definition of “indecent.” First, it depicted a sexual organ and sexual activity in an “extremely graphic and explicit” way. Second, while it didn’t “extensively dwell on” or contain “repetitions of the sexual material,” the offending portion of the clip lasted around three seconds—“not so brief as to preclude an indecency finding.” Third, as to whether or not the clip “panders to, titillates or shocks the audience,” the FCC noted that it ran during the dinner hour and “indeed shocked the audience.”

The commission said that while it proceeded with the “utmost restraint” to clear the First Amendment hurdle regarding news, the image in question was “unrelated to the news story.”

The commission also rejected WDBJ’s argument that its rules were unclear based on a 2013 Public Notice seeking comment on them.

“First, the 2013 Public Notice was issued on April 1, 2013, almost nine months after [sic] the WDBJ broadcast at issue here,” the NAL said. “Thus, it could have had no effect on WDBJ’s exposure to enforcement action for broadcasts before that date. Moreover, the 2013 Public Notice explicitly states that the commission’s substantive indecency policies, including the definition and contextual analysis set forth herein, remain in effect unaltered, ‘and the commission and/or Enforcement Bureau may take enforcement actions during the pendency of this Public Notice.”

WDBJ, which is owned by Schurz Communications, has 30 days to request a reduction or a cancellation of the fine.