It is slowly dawning on Hollywood -- and its affiliated TV stations across the fruited plain -- that there's a new sheriff policing the tube in the town of Washington. Actually, it's the old sheriff who has come out of a decades-long slumber and signaled that he is now, finally, ready to do his job.
With license renewals on the schedule, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is beginning to get down to business on assessing fines for decency violations on broadcast television. Janet Jackson's bared breast was only the beginning.
Fox affiliates are wincing at the headlines, and they ought to be getting out their checkbooks. The FCC plans to fine 169 Fox affiliates (only 35 of them Fox-owned) a total of $1.18 million for airing pixilated nudity and simulated sex on the public airwaves. Memo to the executives of Fox: Pixilated and simulated will get you regulated. This might cause affiliates to think twice about robotically running every piece of sewage the network hands them. (At least one affiliate -- WRAZ of Raleigh, N.C. -- had the good judgment to refuse to air the show and avoid the fine.)
Although the total fine is the largest the FCC has ever levied, the pain felt by individual stations is on the order of a pinprick, about $7,000 each. By comparison, the commission fined the 20 CBS stations owned by network parent Viacom the maximum of $27,500 each for Janet Jackson, for a total of $550,000. The FCC did not fine CBS stations owned by other companies because the Super Bowl was a live broadcast and stations didn't know what was coming. "Married by America" was taped in advance, so affiliates had advance knowledge of the episode's content and could have chosen to pre-empt it, the commission argued.
Fox issued only a brief statement about the fine: "We disagree with the FCC's decision, and we believe the content was not indecent." That is a silly statement. Fox clearly meant to shock, titillate and arouse enough people to score a good ratings number. And they thought mistakenly that they could get away with offending millions of Americans yet again.
"Married by America" is probably forgotten by most Americans, even the ones who watched it. Fox promised in hyperbolic promos that this show would offer the spectacle of people getting married sight unseen after being matched through a telephone poll. After the viewing audience selected marital partners for the five single contestants, the couples moved into five bungalows where they experienced living together. Each week a team of therapists voted the least compatible couple off the show.
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