Piling up fines at FOX

Posted: Oct 15, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

 The fine-spurring April 7 episode tried to be unforgettable. Fox took the final two couples to Las Vegas for wild bachelor and bachelorette parties. The two "brides-to-be" enjoyed a male stripper who simulated oral sex by licking whipped cream from between their legs. They then licked whipped cream off his nipples. Since that was apparently not ribald enough, the women then entertained a (pixilated) topless female stripper, which one "bride" bounced on suggestively. The other licked whipped cream off her unclothed chest.

 The alleged grooms were also shacked up with strippers by Fox. A duo of stripping, topless sisters arrived, and soon one "groom" was on all fours being whipped with a leather belt by one of the strippers. Luckily for Western civilization, neither of these phone-polled relationships ended up in marriage.

 If the folks at Fox truly believe "the content was not indecent," they are inviting the public to conclude they have no business to be (ab)using the public airwaves. This kind of nudity footage hadn't been seen on broadcast TV since Howard Stern's late-night syndicated TV show was cancelled, but it was made easily available to children at 9 p.m. Eastern time, 8 p.m. Central time at Fox affiliates across fly-over country. The lead-in for "Married by America" was the teen-targeted high school drama "Boston Public."

 Fox affiliates really should have known nudity was coming in that penultimate episode if they watched the episode that aired three Mondays earlier. It featured three instances of blurred nudity, a woman's naked breasts and bare bottom, and a young man dropping shorts before getting in the shower, to which his poll-selected girlfriend oozed, "his ass looked good." Another couple discovered they shared a favorite film genre -- you'd never guess, pornography -- and were then heard having sex in the bathroom.

 The FCC is finally beginning to listen to parents and exercise its legal responsibility to uphold community standards and punish indecent broadcasts. Assessing fines at license renewal time does more than clear the regulators' docket. It also might concentrate some station managers' minds on the need to confront Hollywood's anything-goes pitchmen, given audiences are showing they're fed up with the abuse.