WASHINGTON – Viacom (VIA) will pay a record $3.5 million to settle dozens of federal investigations into alleged indecency on TV and the radio, and introduce delays in more live programming to help catch troublesome material before it gets on the air.
The settlement, announced Tuesday, closes investigations dating back to 2001. One involved shock jock Howard Stern (search), and two focused on Opie and Anthony (search), who lost their Viacom-owned New York radio show after it featured a couple purporting to have sex inside St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Greg "Opie" Hughes and Anthony Cumia went silent after the 2002 show until October, when they joined with XM Satellite Radio (XMSR), where Federal Communications Commission (search) regulations don't apply. Stern is joining the Sirius (SIRI) satellite network in January 2006, when his contract with Viacom-owned Infinity Broadcasting expires.
Viacom, which also owns CBS and MTV, agreed to implement a companywide compliance plan aimed at preventing future violations of federal indecency statutes. The plan includes installation of audio delay equipment at radio stations that broadcast live programming and training broadcasters and employees about indecency laws.
"This consent decree allows us to move forward and to focus our efforts in this area by serving our viewers and listeners with techniques to safeguard live broadcasts, such as cutaways and video and audio delays," Viacom said in a statement.
Viacom said the public, not the government, should decide what it is exposed to on radio and television.
But agreeing to the settlement makes that impossible, says John Dunbar, a project manager at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. Viacom had a reputation for questioning federal investigations under its former president, Mel Karmazin (search), who left in June, Dunbar said. Karmazin is joining his longtime associate Stern at Sirius, where he will be CEO.
Becoming more acquiescent with FCC oversight may make good business sense, Dunbar said, but that means potentially losing freedom of speech.
"Regardless of what the content of the speech was, I'm not sure that it's such a great thing for there not to be a debate on it," Dunbar said.
The settlement is not related to the agency's $550,000 fine against Viacom after the exposure of singer Janet Jackson's breast during the CBS Super Bowl halftime show in January. Viacom is contesting that fine.
The agreement cancels investigations into about 50 radio and television shows, said Richard Diamond, a commission spokesman. The shows were broadcast by Viacom-owned stations across the country, including some in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, California, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, Massachusetts and New York.
The FCC defines indecent programming in the main as containing sexual language or material that is "patently offensive" when measured against prevailing community broadcast standards. It is forbidden on radio or broadcast television from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Material that is judged obscene is not allowed at any hour.
Viacom has five days to pay the $3.5 million fine, according to the agreement. Diamond said it was the commission's largest settlement.
Infinity Broadcasting paid fines totaling $1.7 million in 1995 to settle FCC violations by Stern.