Broadcast indecency enforcement is back in vogue at the FCC. The commission said today it would fine WDBJ-TV, the CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Va. owned by Schurz Communications, the maximum penalty of $325,000 for airing graphic sexual images as part of a news story during its 6 p.m. newscast.
According to the FCC, the fine is the highest the commission has ever levied for a single incident on one station.
Until today, broadcast indecency enforcements at the FCC, regularly challenged by broadcasters and often knocked down by courts, has been on the back burner. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, the FCC in April 2013 dismissed more than a million pending complaints, substantially reducing the commission’s back log. The FCC said that it would reserve enforcements only for “egregious violations.”
Apparently, the WDBJ newscast was too blatant a violation to ignore. In airing a story about a former adult film star who had joined a local volunteer rescue squad, the station used an explicit clip from the star’s film past in the 6 p.m. news on July 12, 2012.
“Our action here sends a clear signal that there are severe consequences for TV stations that air sexually explicit images when children are likely to be watching,” said Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s enforcement bureau.
WDBJ said it would oppose the FCC’s proposed sanction. In a lengthy statement, Jeffrey Marks, president and general manager of WDBJ explained that the objectionable image that appeared on-air was “fleeting,” only seen at the very edge of the screen on some TV sets for less than three seconds.
“The story had gone through a review before it aired,” said Jeffrey Marks, president and general manager of WDBJ. “Inclusion of the image was purely unintentional.”
Marks said the FCC’s fine went too far. “[It’s] an extraordinary burden on protected speech. The FCC’s largest base fine for other types of violations by broadcasters is $10,000,” he said.
In its 60-plus year history Schurz has only paid one other FCC fine.