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FCC Ups the Ante on Indecency and Fox Affiliates Are the Poker Chips

If you are a Fox affiliate, your fax machine (if you still have one) probably has a message on it from the FCC waiting for you, courtesy of the latest struggle between Fox and the FCC over indecency enforcement. In a Notice of Apparent Liability released today, the FCC states it received over 100,000 complaints about a January 3, 2010 episode of American Dad aired on the Fox Television Network. Although the NAL doesn’t discuss the allegedly indecent content, it appears all of the complaints relate to a single segment of the episode which brings to mind that old college query, “if Jack helped you off the horse…” (if you missed that part of college, don’t worry, you didn’t miss much).

While the FCC’s enthusiasm for enforcing its indecency restrictions has waxed and waned over the years, what has usually been constant is the relatively slow path from complaint, to investigation, to resolution. It has not been uncommon for years to pass between these steps, which makes the sequence of events leading up to this NAL all the more interesting. In this case, the FCC sent a letter of inquiry to Fox just 18 days after the episode aired. The letter attached a single redacted complaint that the FCC indicates was “representative of the complaints received by the Commission,” and asked Fox, among other things, whether the description in the complaint of the allegedly indecent content was accurate, which Fox-owned stations aired it, and which Fox Television Network affiliates had the contractual right to air it.

According to the NAL, when the response to the letter arrived at the FCC, it was not from Fox, but from the single Fox affiliate named in the “representative” complaint. As a result, the response didn’t address a number of the FCC’s questions, including the request for a list of Fox affiliates that likely aired the program. To no one’s surprise, the FCC was not pleased. The NAL indicates that the FCC followed up with another letter on March 19, 2010 (note once again the lightning pace, with the FCC’s follow-up letter going out just 18 days after the affiliate’s response was filed). The FCC summarizes that letter as “describing [Fox’s] failure to respond to the LOI and requiring a full and complete response to all the Bureau’s inquiries no later than March 23, 2010,” just four days after the FCC letter was issued.

The NAL indicates that Fox didn’t respond to that letter, which also obviously did not please the FCC. In response, the FCC issued the NAL, which proposes a $25,000 fine against Fox for failure to respond to an FCC inquiry. The NAL notes that the base fine for such an infraction is $4,000, but that a “significant increase” in the fine is appropriate because “misconduct of this type exhibits contempt for the Commission’s authority and threatens to compromise the Commission’s ability to adequately investigate violations of its rules.”

Suspecting, perhaps, that a $25,000 fine would not overly concern an operation the size of Fox, the FCC proceeded to the nuclear option: “Given the continued absence of a response from Fox and the incomplete response received from [the affiliate], contemporaneously with the release of this NAL, the Bureau is sending letters of inquiry to all licensees that air Fox Television Network programming.” The NAL later notes that letters of inquiry are being sent to 235 Fox owned or affiliated stations. The FCC is obviously counting on Fox receiving a firestorm of protests from its affiliates, who now have 30 days to respond to the individual letters of inquiry, which include a request for copies of any complaints about the episode received by the stations themselves. The letters of inquiry are going out today by certified mail, but it appears that the FCC has already faxed the letters to many Fox-affiliated stations.

Both the speed and severity of the FCC’s response indicate a desire to send a very clear message to licensees that there is a new sheriff in town, and not a very patient one at that. This NAL adds an exclamation point to my missive last week about the FCC stepping up its enforcement sanctions to ensure that licensees don’t view them merely as a cost of doing business. Fox affiliates are about to be caught in the crossfire of the next skirmish in the indecency battle between the FCC and Fox, and they are doubtless not too pleased about it.