Federal regulators opened a new front in their crackdown on offensive broadcasts Thursday, saying that almost any use of the F-word on over-the-air radio and television would be considered indecent.
The Federal Communications Commission overruled its staff and said an expletive uttered by rock singer Bono on NBC was both indecent and profane. It marked the first time that the FCC cited a four-letter word as profane; the commission previously equated profanity with language challenging God’s divinity.
The FCC on Thursday also proposed maximum fines for the broadcast of the Howard Stern radio show and for a program on two Florida radio stations owned by a Clear Channel Communications subsidiary.
Commissioners said they did not propose a fine for Bono’s expletive during the 2003 Golden Globe Awards because they had never before said that virtually any use of the F-word violated its rules. The FCC specifically rejected earlier findings that occasional use of the F-word was acceptable.
“Given that today’s decision clearly departs from past precedent in important ways, I could not support a fine retroactively against the parties,” said FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who had asked his fellow commissioners to overturn the agency’s enforcement bureau’s finding.
“Prospectively, parties are on notice that they could now face significant penalties for similar violations,” Powell said.
NBC issued a statement that said: “We believe the commission made the right decision in not fining us over the regrettable Bono incident. As we’ve previously said, Bono’s utterance was unacceptable and we regret it happened.”
A publicist for U2 said Bono was in the studio in Ireland and was not immediately available for comment.
But the decision was criticized by the Parents Television Council, a conservative advocacy group whose complaints led to the FCC’s review.
“Bono may have used the F-word as an adjective, but today’s FCC ruling turned it into a verb directed at American families,” council president L. Brent Bozell III said. He said the decision “does nothing to hold NBC accountable for this obvious breach of commonsense decency standards.”
The FCC received hundreds of complaints about the Golden Globes broadcast after Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock group U2, said, “This is really, really, f— brilliant.” The enforcement bureau said last October that Bono’s comment was not indecent or obscene because he did not use the word to describe a sexual act.
To avoid a repeat incident, NBC aired this year’s Golden Globes broadcast on a 10-second delay. ABC did the same with its telecast of the Academy Awards show.
In another decision Thursday, the FCC proposed fining Infinity Broadcasting the maximum $27,500 for a Stern show broadcast July 26, 2001, on WKRK-FM in Detroit. The FCC received a complaint from a Detroit listener about a show that featured discussions about sexual practices and techniques.
Infinity Broadcasting failed to immediately return a call seeking comment. The Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group, said fines against Stern accounted for almost half of the $4 million in penalties proposed by the FCC since 1990.
The commission also affirmed a $7,000 fine for indecency first leveled in 2000 against Infinity station WLLD in Holmes Beach, Fla., for a live hip-hop concert featuring references to oral sex.
The FCC also proposed fining a subsidiary of Clear Channel, the nation’s largest radio station chain, the maximum $55,000 for a broadcast on two Florida radio stations, WAVW in Stuart and WCZR in Vero Beach, where the host conducted an interview with a couple allegedly having sex.
Commissioners noted that they acted against Clear Channel on the complaint of a listener who did not have a transcript or tape, a departure from past practice. “Complaints should no longer be denied because of a lack of tape, transcript or significant excerpt,” Commissioner Kevin Martin said.
Commissioner Michael Copps dissented from the decision, saying the commission should have moved to revoke the stations’ licenses. “The time has come for the commission to send a strong message that it is serious about enforcing the indecency laws of our country,” he said.
Clear Channel executive vice president Andrew Levin said, “We’re as determined as ever to make sure that we don’t have any violations in the future.”
Federal law bars radio stations and over-the-air television channels from airing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuning in. The rules do not apply to cable and satellite channels or satellite radio.
The House earlier this month voted to increase the maximum fine for indecency to $500,000. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.