Complaint fingers 'Married by America' episode

The Justice Department has taken on the role of the FCC’s enforcer, filing a lawsuit Friday against Fox and Sinclair Broadcast Group to collect $56,000 in fines levied in the long-running indecency case involving Fox reality skein “Married by America.”

The Justice Department’s unusual move came on the same day the FCC rejected Fox’s request for a review of the FCC’s most recent decision to fine a handful of Fox affiliates for carrying the sexually charged reality program in a timeslot in which the FCC has indecency enforcement authority.

The Justice Department filed suits against eight stations in federal courts in Washington, D.C.; Iowa; West Virginia; and Tennessee. In a statement, Fox said it was prepared to argue its case against what the media giant views as an arbitrary standard applied in the FCC’s indecency rulings.

“We look forward to the opportunity to present the full factual and legal argument in the ‘Married by America’ case to an impartial and open court of law,” a Fox spokesman said Friday.

FCC spokeswoman Mary Diamond countered that the commission has “an obligation to protect our children by enforcing laws restricting indecent content on television and radio. For four years, News Corp. has failed to take responsibility for airing indecent programming during ‘Married by America,’ ” she said. “It is long past time for the company to accept responsibility and pay its fines.”

The battling between broadcasters and the FCC on indecency policy has grown so fierce in recent years that the Supreme Court last month agreed to hear its first indecency case since it issued its landmark Pacifica decision (aka “George Carlin’s seven dirty words you can’t say on television”) in 1978. The case headed to the high court involves broadcasters’ liability for the use of “fleeting expletives” by celebs and others on live telecasts.

The FCC first handed down fines against “Married by America” in 2004, following an April 2003 telecast that featured randy sequences of nearly nude male and femme strippers cavorting around a bachelor party with whipped cream and other props (and plenty of pixilation). The FCC initially issued a $7,000 fine against each of the 169 Fox affils that aired the episode within the 6 a.m.-10 p.m. timeframe in which the FCC has the authority to police the airwaves for indecent or obscene content.

After a series of challenges from Fox and other broadcasters to a number of FCC indecency rulings, the commission in February dropped the number of stations fined in the “Married” case to 13, repping only markets where the FCC received a formal viewer complaint (Daily Variety, Feb. 25).

Since then, four of the stations have paid the fine and one more was dropped from the list because there was no viewer complaint from its market. Of the remaining eight stations still fighting the FCC’s action, five are owned by Fox and three by Baltimore-based Sinclair.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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