FCC Fines Station Over Wildfire Coverage

The Federal Communications Commission upheld a $25,000 fine against KUSI-TV San Diego for failing to provide adequate visual warnings to hearing-impaired viewers during its coverage of California wildfires.

It was running up against a five-year statute of limitations since the incident occurred in October 2003.

In response to a complaint and subsequent investigation, the FCC initially proposed the fines in 2005, but the station challenged it.

"I think the FCC has gone crazy with fines thinking this is their sole purpose in life," station owner Michael McKinnon told B&C at the time, arguing that the station had been understaffed as it was, with one-half of the employees at home trying to save their property, including the general manager, who was on his roof with a hose. "This was a disaster, not an inconvenience.”

"People with hearing disabilities have a right to the same timely emergency information as stations provide to their hearing audiences," then-FCC chairman Michael Powell said at the time. "The commission remains committed to strong enforcement in this critical area.” The Kevin Martin commission agreed.

In releasing the final order for the fine Thursday, the FCC said it was not persuaded by various arguments, including that the station was exercising editorial judgment about what of the emergency information was sufficiently crucial and credible to make visually available given that visuals had more impact and authority than words.

The fine could have been much more. The FCC pointed out that it found 22 separate violations, each potentially warranting an $8,000 base fine, which would have added up to $176,000.

"We determined, however, that a strict application of $8,000 for each of the 22 apparent violations would result in a total proposed forfeiture that is excessive in light of the circumstances presented," the commission's Enforcement Bureau said in the order. "Furthermore, in determining the total number of apparent violations, we took into consideration the circumstances facing KUSI in providing emergency coverage during the wildfires."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.