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The Nation

FCC Punishes Viacom for Indecency

The company admits it aired explicit material and promises to take preventive measures.

November 24, 2004|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The nation's third-largest media company agreed Tuesday to pay the federal government a record $3.5 million to settle complaints that it broadcast sexually explicit material on its radio and TV shows.

The pact between Viacom Inc. and the Federal Communications Commission comes amid growing concern by regulators, politicians and viewers that broadcasters have pushed too far in lacing shows with sex, violence and graphic language.

Just last week, the FCC launched an investigation into the opening skit for ABC's "Monday Night Football" featuring a locker room romp between Philadelphia Eagles receiver Terrell Owens and "Desperate Housewives" star Nicollette Sheridan.

Viacom was the catalyst for much of the nation's indecency debate when in February it aired on its CBS network the Super Bowl halftime show in which singer Janet Jackson bared her breast. The show, produced by Viacom's MTV Networks, resulted in a $550,000 fine that the conglomerate is continuing to fight, arguing that it came as a surprise and could not have been prevented.

Legal experts said the settlement announced Tuesday was less about the money -- the total amounts to a small fraction of Viacom's $27 billion in revenue -- than about heading off potentially more crippling actions in the near future.

Broadcasters privately have said they're eager to resolve complaints before their licenses come up for FCC renewal and avoid any black mark on their valuable franchises. After an eight-year hiatus, radio and television licenses are set for renewal in 30 states over the next two years, including in such big media markets as California, Texas and New York.

"There's a lot of pressure on them now that they are in the license-renewal cycle," Washington communications lawyer John J. Johnson Jr. said.

In addition to CBS, Viacom owns 185 Infinity Broadcasting radio stations, the UPN television network and other media assets including MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and Paramount Pictures.

The Viacom payment, which must be transmitted to the government within five days, is twice the size of the previous record settlement of $1.75 million paid by Clear Channel Communications Inc. in June.

Beyond the financial penalty, Viacom acknowledged that it aired some indecent material and agreed to institute measures to avoid future breaches.

Among other things, the New York-based conglomerate said it would install delay systems at its television stations so objectionable content could be deleted before live broadcasts, train on-air talent and others about indecency laws and suspend and retrain employees involved in the airing of programs deemed potentially indecent by the FCC.

Viacom said in a statement that it also planned to educate viewers about the use of ratings, V-chips and other methods to control what they watch.

"Our goal," the company said, "is to provide the wide variety of programming desired by millions of Americans and the tools that give each family the freedom to decide what they will watch in their homes. We believe that consumers, not the government, should decide what they will watch and hear."

Viacom's settlement covers five pending fines for its Infinity radio networks. It also puts an end to potential penalties the company faced for a host of other complaints involving shock jock Howard Stern and TV programs such as "CSI" and "Big Brother."

Infinity in particular has been a thorn in the FCC's side during the last decade. Stern, its star performer, has taunted the FCC repeatedly. Last month, he announced that he would join Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. in 2006, in part to escape the long arm of regulators. Federal indecency rules don't apply to satellite radio.

Although the fine was unanimously approved by the five-member FCC, Commissioner Michael Copps was skeptical that Viacom would comply, given that its radio division had made similar, and unfulfilled, pledges in the past. The agency, he said, has "gone down this road before with Infinity Broadcasting."

Commissioner Kevin Martin said the pact with Viacom wasn't as tough as earlier consent decrees the agency reached with Clear Channel and Emmis Communications Corp. "By requiring less of Viacom than we have required of others, we may be treating those other companies unfairly," he said in a statement.

The Parents Television Council, a Los Angeles-based watchdog group, also criticized the size of the settlement. The group has generated many of the indecency complaints lodged against Viacom and other broadcasters.

Noting that the FCC recently fined a telecommunications company $5 million for sending junk faxes to several million people, the group's spokeswoman, Laura Mahaney, called the penalty "ridiculously low for a multibillion-dollar corporation that has repeatedly flouted the law."

Although the FCC and Viacom could have reached a settlement for any amount, the maximum fines for telecommunications companies under the law are at least three times higher than for broadcast indecency violations.

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