ABC draws heavy FCC indecency fine

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission issued a $1.43 million indecency fine against 52 ABC affiliates Jan. 25 for airing nudity during an episode of "NYPD Blue" in 2003, marking the second-largest indecency fine ever proposed for a television broadcaster.

Though ABC has said it will appeal the ruling, The Wall Street Journal said the fine is "notable for its size and because it could signal the beginning of a new round of indecency fines that may soon emanate from the agency."

"Our action today should serve as a reminder to all broadcasters that Congress and American families continue to be concerned about protecting children from harmful material and that the FCC will enforce the laws of the land vigilantly," FCC commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate said in a statement.

A decision on the 2003 incident has been so long in coming because the "lightly staffed FCC enforcement bureau must go up against broadcasters, which have more legal and financial resources to battle the proposed fine and have a vested interest in dragging out the proceeding," according to The Washington Post.

The Journal noted that complaints have been mounting at the FCC in recent years while the agency spends time defending previous decisions in federal appeals courts.

"We are thankful that the FCC has finally taken a stand for children and families with this unanimous order," said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council. "The delay in getting here has been frustrating, but we are delighted by the decision."

PTC had led the public outcry against the scene, which featured the nude buttocks of a woman in a bathroom scene with a young boy, when it initially aired.

"Despite the TV networks' scurrilous lawsuits claiming a right to air profanity, and that a striptease in the middle of the Super Bowl was somehow not indecent, this order should serve as a reminder to every broadcaster and every network that they must use the public airwaves responsibly and in a manner which serves the public interest," Winter said.

The FCC's indecency standards prohibit radio and television stations from broadcasting "patently offensive" material of a sexual or excretory nature from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the NYPD Blue episode aired before 10 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones.

"We find that the programming at issue is within the scope of our indecency definition because it depicts sexual organs and excretory organs — specifically an adult woman's buttocks," the FCC wrote in its ruling.

ABC defended the broadcast by saying the affiliates aired the show with appropriate parental warnings and with V-chip enabled program ratings, and they pointed to the fact that NYPD Blue had been on the air for nearly a decade when the episode in question occurred.

Before the Jan. 25 fine, the last time the FCC had imposed an indecency fine was in 2006 when it proposed a record $3.6 million fine against CBS stations for a 2004 episode of "Without a Trace," The Post said.

The Wall Street Journal noted that if the NYPD Blue episode had aired after Congress raised the maximum indecency fine to $325,000 in 2005, the stations could have been subject to a combined $16.9 million penalty.

Action regarding the NYPD Blue episode comes as viewers across the nation are filing complaints over actress Diane Keaton's use of the f-word on "Good Morning America" Jan. 15. Pro-family groups have criticized ABC for failing to edit the word before it was broadcast to millions of homes where children could have been watching.

"Unfortunately, the networks have demonstrated a pattern of avoiding any accountability after airing indecent content," Winter, of the Parents Television Council, said after the NYPD Blue ruling. "We hope that ABC will honor the namesake of its corporate parent and step up to the plate, pay its fine and accept full responsibility for its actions.

"We also call on Congress and the courts to listen to the people rather than the mega media conglomerate lobbyists and defend the authority of the FCC to protect the public airwaves from those who would abuse their privilege to use them," Winter said.

Compiled by Erin Roach, BP news.