Is Popular Will Behind FCC Crackdowns?

ByABC News

WASHINGTON, Dec. 4, 2004 — -- "Married by America," a reality show on Fox that ran for just seven episodes in spring 2003, did not really register with viewers.

It did register with the Federal Communications Commission, which last month fined Fox a record-setting $1.2 million for one raunchy scene. That's more than double the fine against CBS for Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction."

"In the last year, year and a half, the commission has stepped up its enforcement," said David Solomon, FCC enforcement bureau chief.

Many point to an increasingly vocal public, angry about filth on the airwaves.

Others argue it's not the public that's angry -- but a very vocal minority.

The FCC said it had received "159 complaints" about "Married by America." But media writer Jeff Jarvis obtained copies of those complaints, and the number was not 159, but 90, written by 23 people. And 21 apparently were copied from the same form letter by a conservative group.

So in the end, there were only three original letters.

"We're in a situation here where the FCC and a few prudes are trying to determine what all of us can watch," Jarvis said.

But the FCC says the number of complaints has nothing to do with its task -- determining whether indecent material has been on the public airwaves.

"We have a statutory responsibility under the statute to do indecency enforcement," Solomon said.

Broadcasters complain the FCC is inconsistent, imposing fines for material that has already aired in the past with no punishment. That's the main reason 66 ABC affiliates chose not to run the movie "Saving Private Ryan" on Veterans Day, even though many had shown it before.

One factor in the FCC's new aggressiveness is an election-year Congress pushing hard on the agency to crack down.

Chris Sterling, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, served under a Republican commissioner on the FCC.

"It's a leaning tower of Jell-O," Sterling said. "And depending on who's pushing the issues, and who's coming firmly one way or the other, the commission will lean that way."

Right now, at least, the FCC is leaning hard on broadcasters.

ABC News' Jake Tapper originally reported this story Nov. 26 on World News Tonight.

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