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Complaints to FCC down sharply in '05

It's likely due to fewer write-in campaigns, not necessarily cleaner TV and radio, officials say.

August 17, 2005|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Complaints about indecent or obscene content on radio and television declined dramatically in the first quarter of 2005, compared with the last quarter of 2004, according to a report released this month by the Federal Communications Commission.

But that doesn't necessarily mean radio and TV stations have cleaned up their act. Instead, FCC officials attributed the marked drop -- which saw complaints plummet from 317,833 to 157,650 from one quarter to the next -- to the end of e-mail and write-in campaigns aimed at certain television and radio stations. The report did not identify which organizations were behind the campaigns or which broadcasters were targeted.

In early 2004, religious and parent groups across the country mobilized to support stricter moral standards in broadcasting after Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl halftime show. In the quarter that included the exposure of the pop singer's right breast on live television, the FCC received 693,080 complaints about indecent or obscene programming.

The incident sparked a nationwide debate about the boundaries of taste for both mediums and fueled calls for heavier fines against transgressors, such as shock-jock Howard Stern.

Meanwhile, the latest FCC report also showed a noticeable jump in programming complaints about cable TV and satellite radio services. Complaints rose from 37 in the fourth quarter of last year to 502 in the first quarter of 2005. The FCC, however, doesn't break down the source of the complaints, so it's not clear how many, if any, are related to indecency issues.

Like cable television, satellite radio is exempt from the decency rules that govern broadcast television and radio stations. However, that would change under a proposal floated earlier this year by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to extend those stricter standards to cable and satellite.

Officials point out that just because a complaint has been filed doesn't mean a broadcast station is guilty of violating obscenity or decency laws.

The FCC defines broadcast indecency as material that depicts "sexual or excretory organs or activities" or that is "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards." The rules are enforced on programs airing from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., when children are more likely to be watching or listening.

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