The consolidation of the broadcast industry over the last decade may have increased indecent programming on the nation's airwaves, according to a new report by the Center for Creative Voices in Media and Fordham University.
According to the report, as leading broadcasters such as Clear Channel Communications and Viacom Inc.'s Infinity Broadcasting have bought more stations, they have frequently replaced local programming with shock jocks such as Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge, who are prone to vulgarity.
Those programming decisions may have lured more young listeners, the ones that advertisers most covet, while also saving the companies money. But that may have led to an increase in indecency complaints, according to the report, which is to be released today.
From 2000 to 2003, the report found, the nation's four largest radio companies racked up 96% of the fines handed out by the Federal Communications Commission, while their stations accounted for only about half of the country's listening audience.
The study suggests that instead of relying on stiffer fines, regulators seeking to rein in indecency would be better off breaking up large broadcast groups.
"Rather than raising the fines, Washington should think about reinstating the ties that stations have to their local communities," said Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices, a Washington-based group that represents Hollywood writers and producers, and a co-author of the study.
The study points out that some of the politicians who are now trying to crack down on indecency by raising fines on broadcasters are the same ones who voted in 1996 to relax ownership rules that contributed to concentration.
"One of the unintended consequences of their support of deregulation is an increase in indecency," Rintels said.
Congress is slated in the coming year to revise the 1996 Telecommunications Act that deregulated the media and spurred consolidation.
The correlation between media consolidation and indecency will also be an issue as the Federal Communications Commission begins its revisions of media ownership rules.
In reaching its conclusions, the report cited the case of a station in Port Charlotte, Fla., that was bought by Clear Channel in 1996. The station, never previously fined for indecency, incurred penalties of $110,000 in 2004 because of crude remarks made on the air by Bubba the Love Sponge.
The report quotes from segments of Bubba's show in which the voices of purported cartoon characters talked about drugs and graphic sexual acts.
In one expletive-laced skit, for example, Shaggy tells Scooby Doo that he could perform sexual favors to raise money to buy crack.
Bubba the Love Sponge has since been dropped by Clear Channel. Some might see that as proof that indecency fines accomplish their goal, but the report pointed out that an overreliance on such punishments could have a chilling effect on broadcasters that would be detrimental to consumers.
"A lot of political speech is being repressed because of the self-censoring by broadcasters," said Rintels, who noted that the threat of higher fines had led an Ohio station to bump Stern off the air last month after the FCC said it was investigating a consumer complaint.
Already, consent decrees signed in 2004 by three of the nation's four largest radio groups to resolve outstanding indecency complaints have led to self censorship, Rintels said.
Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest radio station owner, has terminated Stern, who is moving to Sirius Satellite Radio to escape restrictions.
"While Howard Stern is often indecent, he is also political and to pull him off the air is to deprive listeners of that commentary," Rintels said.