Justice Dept. sues Fox over indecency fines

In an unusual move, the Justice Department sued Fox Broadcasting Co. and another broadcaster Friday to collect $56,000 in fines for the broadcast of a raunchy reality show in 2003 that included scenes from bachelor and bachelorette parties.

Fox's Married by America included the "thrusting of a male stripper's crotch into a woman's face" in one show in addition to other scenes the agency found objectionable, according to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

In October of 2004, the FCC issued a $7,000 fine against 169 Fox-affiliated stations totaling $1.2 million.

The fines were assessed regardless of whether a complaint was lodged against a particular station. Fox challenged the FCC's action and last month the FCC dropped the complaints against all but 13 stations, which were the subject of actual viewer complaints. The move lowered the total fine to $91,000.

Despite the decision, Fox, a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., said it would not pay the fines because the FCC's decision in the case was "arbitrary and capricious, inconsistent with precedent and patently unconstitutional."

The company appealed again, but on Friday, the FCC "returned without consideration" its claim, saying it was 14 pages over the limit. The agency said the company did not ask permission to exceed those page limits. Fox dubbed the FCC decision "offensive."

Since the FCC's February action, four stations have paid the fine and another station was dropped because no complaint was filed against it, leaving eight stations and $56,000 in fines. Five of the eight stations are owned by Fox, three are owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group.

The Justice Department brought suit in Washington, D.C., Iowa, West Virginia and Tennessee.

The action has been part of an aggressive campaign by the government to enforce indecency rules on television. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving Fox and the broadcast of fleeting expletives, the first such broadcast indecency case to be heard by the high court since 1978.

ABC, which is owned by Walt Disney Co., paid FCC fines totaling $1.2 million involving a 2003 airing of an NYPD Blue episode in which a woman's bare buttocks were shown. But the company decided it would challenge the agency's ruling in court.

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

Fox spokesman Scott Grogin in a brief statement released Friday night said, "We look forward to the opportunity to present the full factual and legal arguments in the Married by America case to an impartial and open court of law."

It is unusual for an indecency fine to be challenged in federal court. Most cases are resolved at the administrative level within the agency. The case against Fox will essentially start from scratch in a "trial de novo."

The stations still subject to the fine are in Tampa; Detroit, Mich.; Washington, D.C.; Kansas City, Mo.; Des Moines; Minneapolis, Minn.; Nashville and Charleston W.Va.

The six-episode Married by America series introduced a cast of single men and women and allowed viewers to match them up by popular vote. Five matched couples then went through dating rituals debauchery and whipped cream, but none married.