WASHINGTON — Lee and Dawn Gohmann of St. Augusta, Minn., and their three children decided to give up television for Lent.
But a friend challenged Lee Gohmann when he said there were some shows he liked to watch without the kids. “If it's not appropriate for them, is it appropriate for you?” said the friend.
That's when he decided to give up television beyond Lent. “There are a lot of things on television that they shouldn't be showing.”
The Gohmanns aren't alone. The majority of television viewers say they're getting fed up.
In an effort to curb such indecency and answer a new flood of complaints, the Federal Communications Commission has begun an new crackdown on radio and television broadcasters.
“People were upset before the Super Bowl,” said L. Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center and Parents Television Council
“The pressure was there and it exploded,” when Jackson exposed herself, he said. “Parents were watching with their children and this was the ultimate kick in the teeth by the entertainment industry.”
Following the Jackson incident, more than 200,000 viewers registered their complaints with the FCC.
In March, the FCC levied fines against two radio broadcasting companies and also cited NBC declaring that an expletive uttered by rock star Bono during the Golden Globe Awards last year was indecent and profane.
The notices of apparent liability included a $27,500 statutory maximum forfeiture against Infinity Broadcasting for a Howard Stern show broadcast July 26, 2001, on WKRK-FM in Detroit, and a proposed $7,000 fine against Infinity station WLLD in Holmes Beach, Fla. The FCC also proposed fining Capstar, a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications, the maximum $55,000 for a broadcast on two Florida stations, WAVW in Stuart and WCZR in Vero Beach.
While media watchers support the FCC's recent actions, they question whether the FCC has done enough.
The Parents Television Council was particularly outraged by the FCC's decision not to fine NBC for airing the f-word during the 2003 Golden Globe Awards.
“The decision by the FCC does nothing to hold NBC accountable for this obvious breach of common-sense decency standards,” Bozell said. “Once again the FCC has made a mockery of its avowed duty to serve the public interest.”
FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Kevin Martin agreed with Bozell on that point. Both thought NBC should have been fined. Two of their commission colleagues and the chairman, Michael Powell, however, thought the station needed to be given fair notice that such language was indecent.
This disagreement is one of several Copps has had with his fellow commissioners. Copps believes the FCC needs to seek license revocations, examine the rising tide of media conglomeration and enforce higher fines — a proposal that is currently under consideration in Congress.
“The commission has to be responsible,” Copps said. “They are creating a climate where broadcasters are doing this and getting away with it. Eighty percent of the notices of apparent liability have been against Viacom and Clear Channel. We haven't given them many reasons to respect the FCC.”
“While the FCC has woken up after many years of slumber, the fact of the matter is that up until the evening before I testified before the Senate last winter, it had never fined a single English-speaking television station for indecency,” Bozell said. “They not only have a legal obligation to enforce decency standards, but they also have $278 million of taxpayers' money to do it.”
Two and a half years ago, Bozell's media-watchdog organizations launched a campaign to encourage people to file complaints with the FCC. Since the campaign's launch, Bozell estimated they have delivered several hundred thousand complaints.
Still, while the FCC can enforce decency standards, the responsibility ultimately resides with the broadcasters.
“The halftime show had a galvanizing effect, particularly at the policymaking level,” Copps said. “It put the laser beam on the broadcasters to clean up the airways.”
Some broadcasters have responded positively to the call. Others have not.
San Antonio-based Clear Channel, for example, announced a new Responsible Broadcasting Initiative to make certain the material aired on its more than 1,200 radio stations conforms to the standards of the local communities it serves. Central to the initiative is company-wide training on what is and is not permissible on-air.
“If the FCC accuses us of wrong-doing by issuing a proposed fine, we will take immediate action,” said Mark Mays, president and chief operating officer of Clear Channel Communications. “We will suspend the DJ in question and perform a swift investigation. If we or the government ultimately determine the offending broadcast is indecent, the DJ will be terminated without delay.”
In addition, the company announced that all of its contracts with on-air performers were being modified to ensure that DJs share financial responsibility if they utter indecent material on the air.
In late February, Clear Channel Radio suspended the broadcast of Viacom's Howard Stern show.
“Clear Channel drew a line in the sand today with regard to protecting our listeners from indecent content and Howard Stern's show blew right through it,” said John Hogan, president and chief executive officer of Clear Channel Radio. “It was vulgar, offensive and insulting … to anyone with a sense of common decency.”
‘Out of Control’
Stern criticized the actions, complaining of a double standard. He described the FCC's definition of indecency as both “hypocritical” and “fuzzy.”
Stern posted transcripts on his website from an “Oprah Winfrey” episode that defined a number of sexual terms popular among teenage girls and asked listeners to register their complaints with the FCC. The Oprah episode originally aired on Oct. 2, 2003, and was rerun on March 18.
“If they fine me for this, they have to fine Oprah. And if they fine Oprah all hell is going to break loose,” Stern said during his show on March 19 while attempting to play a clip of the Oprah segment in question. His producers beeped out all possibly offending phrases for fear of receiving another fine.
Not all broadcasters have gone as far as Clear Channel.
“Clear Channel has been as clear cut as Infinity is being two-faced,” Bozell said. “Clear Channel has taken full responsibility for its actions and recognized where it has made mistakes. Meanwhile, Infinity's chief executive officer Mel Karmazin told Congress he would have a zero-tolerance policy, but they have been fighting every indecency fine.”
Infinity Broadcasting did not return calls for comment.
The public outrage surrounding the Super Bowl prompted an immediate response from each of the major networks. CBS used a time delay for the Grammy Awards. ABC used one for the Oscars, and NBC removed questionable material from an episode of “ER.”
Most viewers say it's still too early to say whether there will be any long-term effects from the FCC's actions.
“We've been down this road before,” Bozell said. “There was great consternation after the Columbine tragedy. Television is now more violent than ever.”
“People get acclimated to more severe content,” Gohmann said. “When I was little, my parents wouldn't let me watch ‘Happy Days’ because of all the girls flocking around Fonzie. Today that show seems like nothing compared with what they show now.”
Bozell described the industry as “out of control.”
“In years past, the driving thrust was to push the envelope a little bit more, but in recent years it's been to be as outrageous as you can be,” Bozell said. “As soon as that wall is scaled, there's a new one.”
Copps is hopeful the industry can improve.
“If we do our job and show we are intent upon enforcing the laws, we'll keep the industry focused on this,” he said. “Anyone who thinks they can return to the race to the bottom and think this will go away is vastly deluding themselves.”
Regardless of the improvement on the airways, Gohmann, who gave up TV for Lent, said he's seen an improvement at home.
“My wife feels that the two younger children are getting along better,” he said. The children also like the improvement they've seen in their father. “They told me they like that I'm not saying, ‘Kids, don't bother me during this show.’”
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.