FCC Upholds Viacom Indecency Settlement

The FCC has rejected a challenge to its 2004 consent decree with Viacom that settled a host of radio and TV indecency complaints and about a dozen proposed fines against Infinity radio stations.

In denying the challenge, the FCC said that despite those indecency findings, it had no "substantial and material questions" about Viacom's fitness as a licensee. Indecency fines are levied against individual stations, not radio or TV networks.

As part of the settlement, Viacom admitted some of the material was indecent, paid $3.5 million to the treasury, and adopted a company-wide compliance policy to prevent a repeat of the "indecent" broadcasts, including putting a delay on live radio and TV programming.

For its part, the FCC agreed to dismiss all proposed radio fines and complaints against radio and TV--with the exception of the Janet Jackson complaint--and not to use any of the dismissed complaints, or complaints about other past shows, against the company in the future.

In essence, Viacom got a clean slate.

The two groups, the Right to Decency and the American Decency Association, had challenged the decree, arguing that the FCC was allowing Viacom to buy basic character qualifications to hold its TV and radio licenses.

The Commission disagreed, saying that if it did not think Viacom was still qualified to hold its licenses, it would not have struck the deal.

In its dismissal of the challenge, released Tuesday, the FCC said it had the authority to settle with Viacom and that the settlement it struck was what it had to do to get Viacom's agreement to resolve the matters.

The FCC also said it took Viacom's admission that some of the content was indecent as "a step to wards ensuring that it does not repeat such violations."

The fines all involved Infinity Radio outlets and Viacom admitted that broadcasts on WKRK-FM Detroit were indecent. The FCC proposed a fine against Infinity station WKRK-FM back in December 2003 for a "Deminski and Doyle Show" broadcast of a series of references to various disgusting sexual practices.

Also included was the $357,000 fine for the Sex in St. Patricks cathedral stunt on WNEW(FM), as well as another Opie & Anthony broadcast (the jocks were axed after the St. Pat's stunt).

Viacom also agreed to immediately suspend, and potentially fire, any on-air employee whose broadcast results in a notice of apparent liability from the FCC, and to institute indecency education programs at all its properties.

We're gratified by the decision at the FCC," said Gil Schwartz, executive VP of communications at CBS. "When we made this agreement two years ago, we felt that it settled the issues involved and we were happy to put these matters behind us. We believe that the petitoners' claims in this matter was without merit. We're pleased the FCC saw it the same way."

"We aren't happy at all," says Bill Johnson, director of the American Decency Association. "This $3.5 million fine was a slap on the wrist. Yesterday, [Viacom Chairman] Sumner Redstone stated that media execs are fearful of crackdowns. To which we say: 'What a joke.' The U.S. airwaves remain largely the same, under assualt from programming permeated with the same old, same old. Redstone used the c-word, "censorship." We see no evidence of the entertainment industry quaking in their boots."

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.