FCC dismissal of indecency complaints clears way for renewal of pubcasters’ licenses

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Pubcasters Louisiana Public Broadcasting, Twin Cities Public Television and KCOS-TV in El Paso, Texas, were among the almost 700 broadcasters whose licenses were renewed en masse earlier this month, after the FCC quietly cleared many stations nationwide of indecency charges.

The renewals had been on hold due to allegations that some of their programming may have violated FCC regulations barring broadcasters from airing indecent material between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The complaints were thrown out as part of an agency effort to reduce the backlog of applications to be processed.

The complaint against LPB was apparently over an episode of Doc Martin, according to LPB President Beth Courtney. “You’re kidding me” was Courtney’s reaction when she learned of the complaint’s target, she said.

“There was nothing that I saw under any guideline that would be a problem,” Courtney said, adding that the agency’s rejection of the complaint “was the appropriate response.”

The complaint pending against Twin Cities was apparently over “blurred nudity” in an episode of Globe Trekker, according to station spokesperson Elle Krause-Lyons. Krause-Lyons said station executives had no further comment.

“I just know that our license has been renewed . . . and we’re on good terms with the FCC, as far as far as we’re aware,” said Emily Loya, KCOS general manager. Loya, who stepped in as the station’s general manager last month, said she was unaware of the substance of the complaint alleging indecency on the station.

The FCC also renewed the license for KSMQ in Austin, Minn., without making clear the exact nature of the indecency complaint against the station, said Eric Olson, station president.

“It was just kind of a phantom thing,” said Olson. “We’re thrilled to have our license renewed. I think we were mistakenly swept into a group complaint.”

The commission cleared license renewal applications if enforcement bureau staffers decided that the “indecency complaints that had been filed were not actionable or were highly unlikely to result in an enforcement action that could survive a litigation challenge,” an FCC spokesperson said.

“The bureau then reviewed holds that had previously been placed on broadcast license renewals and lifted those associated with these complaints,” the FCC spokesperson said. Another spokesperson declined to reveal how many renewals remain on hold due to indecency complaints.

The FCC has seen a decline in complaints alleging broadcast indecency in recent years, down to 5,200 complaints in 2013 from 216,214 in 2009. A key reason for the decline is that the two Democrats who have chaired the FCC since June 2009 — Julius Genachowski and now Tom Wheeler — have made clear that they are far less eager to prosecute indecency cases than previous agency chairs, including Democrat Michael Copps and Republican Kevin Martin, said John Crigler, a communications attorney with the law firm Garvey Schubert Barer.

With Genachowski and Wheeler at the FCC’s helm, anti-indecency groups such as Parents Television Council and Morality in Media have had little incentive to orchestrate the same sort of mass indecency challenges as before, Crigler said.

“The past two chairmen have discovered the enormous power of doing nothing,” Crigler said. “Before that, [indecency] was a very high enforcement priority.”

However, enforcement bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc, who was hired to head the bureau earlier this year, has been toughening the bureau’s consent-decree policy to make clear that future settlements generally will have to be accompanied by admissions of wrongdoing.

Under the bureau’s former policy, a company targeted by an enforcement action could settle with the bureau in a consent decree without admitting wrongdoing and make a tax-deductible voluntary financial contribution to the U.S. Treasury.

Under the new policy, “payment to the U.S. Treasury is no longer tax-deductible. And the Enforcement Bureau is seeking admissions in the consent decrees,” the FCC spokesperson said.