The government proposed a record fine of $3.6 million against dozens of CBS stations and affiliates Wednesday in a crackdown on what regulators called indecent television programming.
The Federal Communications Commission said a network program, "Without a Trace," that aired in December 2004 was indecent. It cited the graphic depiction of "teenage boys and girls participating in a sexual orgy."
The proposed fine was among decisions from the agency stemming from more than 300,000 complaints it received concerning nearly 50 TV shows broadcast between 2002 and 2005.
Rejecting an appeal by CBS, the FCC also upheld its previous $550,000 fine against 20 of the network's stations for the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl two years ago.
These were the first fines issued under FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, clearing a backlog of investigations into indecency complaints. The commission issued no fines last year.
"The number of complaints received by the commission has risen year after year," said the FCC's Martin. "I share the concerns of the public — and of parents, in particular — that are voiced in these complaints."
Responding to other complaints, the commission found that Fox Television Network violated decency standards during the 2003 Billboard Music Awards. During the broadcast, actress Nicole Richie uttered the "F" word and a common vulgarity for excrement.
"Each of these words is among the most offensive words in the English language," the FCC said. But it declined to issue a fine against Fox because at the time of the broadcast existing precedent indicated the commission would not take action against isolated use of expletives, the FCC said.
The commission also declined to fine Fox or its stations for the 2002 Billboard Music Awards, in which Cher uttered the "F" word.
Martin, a Republican, has long advocated a tough stand against indecency violators. Before becoming chairman last year, he complained in several cases that the agency should be fining broadcasters based on each offensive utterance, not each program. That way, the FCC could find several violations in a program.
Martin is also on record supporting legislation to increase the maximum fine an indecency violation could draw. The current maximum is $32,500 per incident, but some lawmakers have called for boosting the penalty to as high as $500,000.
There was overwhelming support for hiking fines in the months after the Jackson exposure two years ago, but legislation has fizzled in Congress.