FCC Imposes Maximum Fine on TV Station for Indecency

Posted on March 31st, 2015 by

Just when everyone thought the FCC was done stirring things up with indecency fines, they’ve decided to enforce their indecency policy anew by assessing the maximum $325,000 fine against a TV station. Pretty aggressive, huh?

Well first, the amount of the fine stems from a nearly decade old decision by the U.S. Congress to increase the amount of the fine the FCC could impose for indecency violations. Remember a Super Bowl Halftime Show and the “wardrobe malfunction”? That’s what prompted Congress to act, all those years ago.

Second, the circumstances of the indecency involved in this case were egregious, with factors that were difficult to square with any journalistic standard. The offensive material appeared in the lead story of an evening newscast, produced by a station photojournalist who used a video shot taken from a less-than-reputable website, and contained content missed in the control room despite a video delay because the TV monitor border covered part of the screen visual content. Even worse, the offensive video, tucked away in an inset at the top right of the screen, played for 3 full seconds. And finally, there was no pixilation, blur or fleeting “difficult to tell” component of the video, which displayed a male body part. Viewers immediately responded to the content, clearly offended and outraged.

Though the station argued inadvertence and apologized, the FCC was not buying it. After an investigation, they issued a notice of apparent liability for $325,000, wrapped in a comprehensive 15-page decision.

The station has vowed to fight the fine on First Amendment grounds. Others have taken up the same call, claiming that broadcasters are treated differently than other media. This may well become the next test case for the U.S. Supreme Court on the FCC’s indecency policy. Unlike the last one, which dealt with whether the FCC acted reasonably in adopting and enforcing its indecency policy, this case will likely be decided on First Amendment grounds.

We caution TV stations in particular to be diligent in controlling video content that is broadcast, and in the hiring and training of those who have access to the station’s transmission facilities. Employee errors always land at the feet of the employer.