The decision reversed a determination by the FCC's staff and marked a significant shift in the commission's attitude toward even fleeting instances of on-air obscenity. Before Thursday, isolated, nonsexual use of the expletive was not necessarily considered indecent.
Neither Bono nor any of the NBC stations and affiliates that aired the program will face fines.
"Given that today's decision clearly departs from past precedent in important ways, I could not support a fine retroactively" against NBC, FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell said.
Going forward, Powell said, the FCC would treat virtually all use of the word as indecent.
"This sends a signal to the industry that the gratuitous use of such vulgar language on broadcast television will not be tolerated," Powell said.
NBC applauded Thursday's action. "As we have previously said, Bono's utterance was unacceptable and we regret it happened," the network said. "Today's decision confirms that the rules in place at that time did not subject broadcasters to strict liability for fleeting utterances in live broadcasts."
Using the previous rules, FCC staff ruled in October that Bono had not violated broadcast standards. That determination generated more than 230,000 letters and e-mails of protest. The outrage grew in the wake of singer Janet Jackson's baring of her right breast during the Super Bowl half-time show.
At least one group said the FCC didn't go far enough.
"Today's decision does nothing to hold NBC accountable for this obvious breach of common sense decency standards," said Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council in Hollywood. "The decision also does little to restore the notion that a broadcast license represents a public trust, not a corporate entitlement. Once again the FCC has made a mockery of its avowed duty to serve the public interest."
Also Thursday, the commission proposed $89,000 in fines against three other broadcasters — including a radio station accused of carrying an indecent show by shock jock Howard Stern.
The FCC proposed fining a Michigan radio station owned by Infinity Broadcasting Corp. $27,500 for its airing of the Howard Stern show and slapping an Infinity station in Holmes Beach, Fla., with a $7,000 forfeiture for broadcasting a live rap/hip-hop concert that included references to oral sex.
The FCC also fined Clear Channel Communications Inc. $55,000 for a broadcast in Florida in which the radio host conducted an interview with a couple allegedly having sex.
Infinity executives could not be reached for comment.
Andy Levin, Clear Channel's executive vice president for law and government affairs in Washington, said his company had imposed new employee training programs and broadcasts on a time delay.
Levin called the Florida radio interview "an unfortunate incident that occurred two years ago" and vowed, "We're more determined than ever to make sure we don't get violations in the future. Our new zero-tolerance policy is working."
Those incidents and others have triggered a drive in Congress to harshen the penalties on radio and TV broadcasters for violations of indecency rules and even caused chagrined network TV executives to propose a range of voluntary reforms to prevent such incidents in the future.
Last month, for instance, Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman told a congressional panel that his network had added staff and new technology to improve its ability to monitor and censor content on live TV programs.
Lawmakers want to go further with legislation that would raise the maximum fine for broadcast indecency from $27,500 to $500,000 per incident.