AFTRA Slaps FCC Decency Fines

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) has jumped into the broadcast-decency controversy, looking to defend its on-air broadcaster and deejay members, whom companies are looking to burden with potential FCC fines related to content decency.

"The responsibility for complying with FCC regulations rests with the employers," AFTRA said in a statement released last week. "Our members aren't responsible for programming the stations and they don't hold a station's license to broadcast on the public airwaves."

Following the Janet Jackson controversy on CBS's Super Bowl halftime show, media bosses looked to quell an uproar of criticism coming from the Federal Communications Commission and Congress.

Mel Karmazin, Viacom's president and COO, reminded executives of the conglomerate's radio-station group that they would risk strict penalties for on-air obscenity or indecency. Clear Channel went even further, declaring a no-tolerance policy and taking the nation's most famous shock jock, Howard Stern, off the air. Clear Channel also axed Todd Clem, known on radio as Bubba the Love Sponge, who had received the FCC's largest single indecency fine of $715,000.

"It's completely inappropriate and unprecedented for a broadcast company to shift the burden of complying with FCC regulations onto the backs of its employees," AFTRA's statement argued. "To the extent that individual employees may make on-the-spot errors that run afoul of FCC regs or company policy, that employee's existing personal services agreement already provides recourse for the company. What's truly indecent about this situation is how big media is trying to absolve itself of complying with FCC regulations by making its employees pay fines that are only levied because of management's programming decisions."

It now appears that Congress is preparing to put the hammer on the likes of individual announcers and on-air artists. The House Commerce Committee has been expected to vote this week on including in the proposed Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act (HR 3717) a $100,000 fine on individuals offending broadcast decency, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

If Congress approves any such legislation, and President Bush signs it, a constitutional challenge surely will follow in the courts, where First-Amendment free-speech rights have been often, but not always, upheld. For example, in 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the FCC's power to regulate on-air content, when, in FCC v. Pacifica, the court approved of the commission's curbing the "seven words," including the F-word, that can't be said on-air.

Interestingly, the FCC three years ago in April released a 28-page report clarifying its determination of indecent broadcasting. Even then, Howard Stern was one of the targets. Stern's speaking about his own body parts, the FCC said, would be considered indecent. An Oprah Winfrey segment on improving romantic relationships, however, would be considered decent. Accidental use of profanity would not be considered indecent, the report said. But whether that attitude will remain could depend on conservative lawmakers and how they word indecency legislation in this session of Congress.