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Broadcast Resources

TUNING IN

A blog dedicated to the world of broadcast and public relations

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Decency Standards in Broadcasting

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In our last newsletter, the fall edition of Tuning In, our front-page article featured the buzz over media consolidation. Last fall, the Federal Communications Commission voted to give media conglomerates an enormous amount of power. Under the new rules of media ownership, the FCC said, one company can own up to three television stations, eight radio stations, the major newspaper and the cable system, all in the same city. Congressmen began to clamor, some supporting the ruling, others vowing to draw up legislation against the consolidation and possible reduction of diversity. At this point, the FCC ruling has been put on hold by a federal appeals court and is being debated on Capitol Hill.

But the FCC continues to be at the center of a storm, one equally disturbing, namely, the FCC’s lack of action in the enforcement of federal laws that make it illegal to broadcast obscene and indecent programming. In the wake of Janet Jackson’s infamous halftime performance at the Super Bowl, both the Senate and House became a beehive of activity holding hearings and accusing the FCC of not doing its job to protect listeners and viewers from indecent programming. Last year, according to Representative Tom Osborne (R-NE), the FCC received 240,000 complaints, upon which only three citations were issued. It should also be noted that the FCC has never made a move to suspend a broadcast license.

Yet, it has the authority not only to suspend, but also revoke a station’s license, impose heavy fines, place conditions on the renewal of a broadcast license or issue a warning for the broadcast of obscene or indecent material. Federal law states: obscene speech, and material determined to be obscene based on “contemporary community standards,” and, lacking in literary, artistic, political or scientific value, is not protected by the First Amendment.

So according to this standard, the disrobing of Janet Jackson is against the law, much of the obscenity spouted by shock jocks is against the law, and so is any of their indecent material containing sexual or excretory references heard over the airwaves. According to a Gallup Poll taken after the Super Bowl, 75 percent of the Americans asked, say “a serious effort” has to be made to significantly reduce the amount of toxic entertainment on television and radio. In response, the once sleepy FCC has sprung into action. The result: ”

  • DJ Todd Clem, known as Bubba the Love Sponge, has been fired and his boss, Clear Channel, the largest radio chain in the country, is facing a $715,000 fine for the obscene material on the Bubba broadcasts
  • Clear Channel has also suspended DJ Howard Stern for using sexually explicit language and graphically discussing a pornographic videotape and took his show off the air in six cities
  • Emmis Communications owes the FCC $28,000 in indecency fines for material broadcast on Mancow’s Morning Madhouse
  • Infinity, Emmis and Clear Channel are adopting a zero tolerance policy on indecency
  • Legislation is being introduced to increase fines against broadcasters tenfold, from $27,000 to $270,000 for each incident of indecency, with a maximum penalty of $3 million
  • Language is being drafted to clean up all on-air vocabulary – the list includes eight specific, unpardonable words; and,
  • Lawmakers are mulling over an amendment that would require revoking a broadcast license after three indecency violations

So, how does all this affect public relations professionals? Our job is to protect our clients from embarrassing situations and uncomfortable interviews. To be successful, we must pay attention to the way hosts, reporters and DJ’s handle interviews and news items. To do this, professionals must have a working knowledge of the shows we are booking and the type of guests producers are looking for to fit their formats. The Internet can be a great help – the audio from many shows is streamed on radio station websites, so with just a little effort we can gain a lot of knowledge and preserve both client and agency credibility and integrity.

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