On the heels of levying its biggest fine ever — $550,000 — against CBS, the Federal Communications Commission has topped that with a seven-figure indecency penalty against FOX for a 2003 reality-show broadcast.
The FCC on Tuesday (Oct. 12) issued a fine of $1.18 million against FOX and its affiliates for an episode of the unscripted series “Married by America” that aired in April 2003. The episode featured four contestants, who had become engaged to people chosen by viewers, flying to Las Vegas for bachelor and bachelorette parties.
The parties featured topless female dancers (although their breasts were blurred) and one of the female contestants licking whipped cream off the chest of a male stripper “in a sexually suggestive manner,” as the FCC’s notice of liability puts it.
The commission’s finding also notes that the episode “obscure[d] the depiction of sexual organs in the episode, but the pixilation does little to obscure the overtly sexual and gratuitous nature of the bachelor/bachelorette party scenes.”
The FCC’s action was spurred by letter-writing campaign from the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group that lobbies for an end to sex, profanity and violence on the airwaves. According to Reuters, the commission received 159 complaints about the “Married by America” episode (about 7.5 million people watched it).
FOX issued only a brief statement about the fine: “We disagree with the FCC’s decision and we believe the content was not indecent.”
Although the total fine of $1.18 million is the largest the FCC has ever levied, the pain felt by individual stations may not be that severe. The fine works out to $7,000 for each of the 169 FOX affiliates that aired the “Married by America” episode (at least one did not).
By comparison, the commission fined the 20 CBS stations owned by network parent Viacom the maximum of $27,500 each for Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl breast display, for a total of $550,000. It 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 could have had advance knowledge of the episode’s content and chosen to pre-empt it, the commission argues.