The first fine levied against a television station since the Federal Communications Commission began cracking down on indecency a year ago has renewed fears among some broadcasters that the regulatory agency will continue to act against indecency without ever defining what indecent programming is.
"To get slapped with a fine for walking through a mine field when you don't know where the mines are just isn't fair," said Wallace Jorgenson, chairman of the National Assn. of Broadcasters. "It's not the fine. It's the principle."
On Thursday, a Kansas City TV station was fined $2,000 for broadcasting frontal nudity during prime time last year, but the FCC voted 2-1 not to revoke the station's license from its owner, Tennessee-based Media Central Inc. (The FCC is currently two members short of its full complement of five commissioners.)
Still, the station's troubles are probably not over.
"What they did was give me a fine that was outrageous," Media Central chairman Morton Kent told The Times. "Any fine is outrageous. I don't believe any agency of government has the right to fine when they won't define. We're not going to pay the fine."
An FCC spokeswoman said she did not know what action the commission might take if the fine is not paid.
Kent said his company has already spent nearly $10,000 in legal expenses since January, when the FCC first charged Media Central's KZKC-TV with airing an allegedly indecent movie.
In May, 1987, Treva Burk, a Kansas City junior high school teacher, videotaped a prime-time KZKC presentation of the 1982 R-rated theatrical film "Private Lessons." She sent the tape and a complaining letter to the FCC. Burk, a member of the Kansas City chapter of the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Assn., said she objected to the profanity, adult situations (the film's plot revolves around a teen-age boy learning about sex from an adult instructor) and frontal nudity.
Commissioner James Quello and FCC Chairman Dennis Patrick sided with Burk, voting Thursday to fine KZKC. Commissioner Patricia Diaz Dennis agreed that KZKC probably shouldn't have aired "Private Lessons" in prime time, but voted against a fine.
While concurring with her fellow commissioners that decency standards ought to be maintained during times when children are likely to be watching TV, she warned that the FCC should not replace parents as the final arbiters of taste and ethics in the home.
"I believe as a starting point that government must not supplant or usurp parents in deciding what programs their children should watch," Commissioner Dennis said in a prepared statement. "That is a decision we must leave to each family based on their values, their beliefs and the age and maturity of their children."
According to an FCC spokeswoman, there are currently 105 indecency complaints pending before the commission in addition to the KZKC complaint, but none are actively being investigated. Each of the complaints is supported by either video or audio tapes showing allegedly indecent programming on television or radio.
The impasse between the FCC and the nation's 11,200 radio and television broadcasters over the indecency issue began 14 months ago when the commission charged three radio stations with broadcasting indecent material.
Until that action, FCC guidelines were based on the so-called "seven dirty words" decision handed down in 1978 by the Supreme Court. Under those guidelines, the FCC allowed stations to air all but the most hard-core, adult-oriented material as long as it aired between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., when children were not thought to be in the listening or viewing audience.
With its formal warnings in April, 1987, against radio stations KPFK-FM, KCSB-FM and WYSP-FM, the commission put the broadcasting industry on notice that the old definition of indecency no longer would apply. Instead, the commission warned against any broadcast at any time that depicts or mentions sexual or excretory functions in a "patently offensive" manner.
More than a dozen broadcast industry organizations, including the NAB and all three major television networks, sued the commission in federal court last year, seeking a more narrow definition of what is and is not indecent. The case is still pending and, thus far, the only concession that the commission has made is a December statement that broadcasters may air adult-oriented fare between midnight and 6 a.m. The programming must not be indecent, however, according to the FCC statement.
The FCC still has given no further definition of indecency.
David Simon, vice president for programming for the Fox-owned television stations, including KTTV Channel 11 in Los Angeles, which aired an edited version of "Private Lessons" in prime time last February, said he viewed the FCC's fine as a warning for stations to act responsibly, not as an attempt at censorship.
Steve Weinstein contributed to this story.