FCC Slaps Virginia TV Station With $325,000 Indecency Fine

WDBJ7 tv station
Courtesy of WDBJ7

The FCC plans to issue what it says will be the highest fine ever against a TV station for a single incident of airing indecent content, slapping a $325,000 penalty against a Roanoke, Va., TV station for airing a sexually explicit video clip of an adult film website during a news broadcast.

The planned fine against WDBJ-TV comes in response to complaints over the station’s July 12, 2012, newscast that featured a report on a former adult film star who had joined a local volunteer rescue squad.

Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s enforcement bureau, said that the agency’s action “sends a clear signal that there are severe consequences for TV stations that air sexually explicit images when children are likely to be watching.”

The FCC said that the broadcast violated federal law that prohibits stations from airing indecent programming from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The station is a CBS affiliate owned by Schurz Communications.

Since January 2014, the FCC’s enforcement bureau has issued two other fines for broadcasting indecent content. In both cases, the sanctions were against radio stations.

The station argued that it did not notice the indecent material when it broadcast the screen shot of the adult film website. The images were featured in a small box on the adult film website, which a station photojournalist said he did not notice before the report was broadcast during a 6 p.m. newscast. The station had argued that the images were “extremely fleeting” and did not violate FCC rules. It also argued that the indecency rules are unconstitutional.

But the FCC said that a 2013 Supreme Court decision did not overturn the agency’s authority to police indecent content.

Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, said in a statement, “The FCC’s unanimous and bipartisan ruling is a victory for families, and it serves as a powerful reminder to broadcasters who borrow the public’s airwaves that they must abide by the law.”

Update: Jeffrey Marks, president and general manager of the station, said that they plan to contest the ruling. He noted that the explicit image was not even visible on many TV sets and ran less than three seconds.

He said in a statement, “The enormous fine proposed by the FCC is also an extraordinary burden on protected speech.  The FCC’s largest base fine for other types of violations by broadcasters is $10,000.  That is the fine for a misrepresentation to the FCC.  A transfer of a license without authorization has a fine of only $8,000; use of a station to commit fraud results in a fine of $5,000; broadcast of an illegal lottery costs a station $4,000.  As the FCC admits, its base forfeiture for a violation of the indecency rules is $7,000.  This unprecedented proposed fine is more than 46 times higher than the FCC’s own determination of the punishment for indecent speech.”

Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Assn. of Broadcasters, said, “NAB is disappointed with today’s remarkably punitive indecency fine proposed against WDBJ. Schurz Communications apologized for the fleeting image, which was clearly unintended. This unprecedented fine against a family-owned broadcaster with a demonstrated commitment to serving communities is wholly unwarranted.”