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Activists Dominate Content Complaints
December 06, 2004
By Todd Shields

In an appearance before Congress in February, when the controversy over Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl moment was at its height, Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell laid some startling statistics on U.S. senators.

The number of indecency complaints had soared dramatically to more than 240,000 in the previous year, Powell said. The figure was up from roughly 14,000 in 2002, and from fewer than 350 in each of the two previous years. There was, Powell said, “a dramatic rise in public concern and outrage about what is being broadcast into their homes.”


What Powell did not reveal—apparently because he was unaware—was the source of the complaints. According to a new FCC estimate obtained by Mediaweek, nearly all indecency complaints in 2003—99.8 percent—were filed by the Parents Television Council, an activist group.

This year, the trend has continued, and perhaps intensified.

Through early October, 99.9 percent of indecency complaints—aside from those concerning the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show broadcast on CBS— were brought by the PTC, according to the FCC analysis dated Oct. 1. (The agency last week estimated it had received 1,068,767 complaints about broadcast indecency so far this year; the Super Bowl broadcast accounted for over 540,000, according to commissioners’ statements.)

The prominent role played by the PTC has raised concerns among critics of the FCC’s crackdown on indecency. “It means that really a tiny minority with a very focused political agenda is trying to censor American television and radio,” said Jonathan Rintels, president and executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, an artists’ advocacy group.

PTC officials disagree.

“I wish we had that much power,” said Lara Mahaney, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles-based group. Mahaney said the issue should not be the source of complaints, but whether programming violates federal law prohibiting the broadcast of indecent matter when children are likely to be watching. “Why does it matter how the complaints come?” Mahaney said. “If the networks haven’t done anything illegal, if they haven’t done anything indecent, why do they care what we say?”

Powell, who said during the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas in April that he was unsure how many complaints come from organized groups, addressed the question in an op-ed piece in The New York Times last Friday.

“Advocacy groups do generate many complaints, as our critics note, but that’s not unusual in today’s Internet world…that fact does not minimize the merits of the groups’ concerns,” Powell wrote.

Powell’s fellow Republican commissioner, Kathleen Abernathy, last week said that the agency does not let the number or the sources of complaints determine its indecency findings. “As long as you’re following precedents and the law, it shouldn’t matter,” Abernathy told Mediaweek.

At issue is a process that once relied upon aggrieved listeners and viewers contacting the FCC, but that increasingly is driven by organized groups with a focus on programming content. The FCC does not monitor programming for fear of assuming a role as national censor; it relies on complaints to initiate its indecency proceedings.

So far this year, the system has resulted in millions of dollars in settlements and proposed fines against broadcasters.

In such a system, even the number of complaints becomes an object of contention. For example, the agency on Oct. 12, in proposing fines of nearly $1.2 million against Fox Broadcasting and its affiliates, said it received 159 complaints against Married by America, which featured strippers partly obscured by pixilation.

But when asked, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau said it could find only 90 complaints from 23 individuals. (The smaller total was first reported by Internet-based TV writer Jeff Jarvis; Mediaweek independently obtained the Enforcement Bureau’s calculation.)

And Fox, in a filing last Friday, told the FCC that it should rescind the proposed fines, in part because the low number of complaints fell far short of indicating that community standards had been violated.

“All but four of the complaints were identical…and only one complainant professed even to have watched the program,” Fox said. It said the network and its stations had received 34 comments, “a miniscule total for a show that had a national audience of 5.1 million households.”

Even as some question whether the FCC should let the views of 23 people lead to fines, others take the agency to task for routinely failing to account for many of the complaints it receives. “Over 4,000 people filed a complaint against Married by America. Where do the complaints go?” asked the PTC’s Mahaney.

The PTC has worked hard to achieve its influence over broadcast content. Founded in 1995 by longtime conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III, it set out to make an impact in 2003, including what it called “a massive, coordinated and determined campaign” for more action by the FCC against broadcast indecency. “We delivered on that promise,” Bozell said in the group’s annual report.

The document listed tools developed by the PTC, including continual monitoring and archiving of broadcast network programs and “cutting-edge technology to make it easier for members to contact program sponsors, the FCC, or the networks directly with a simple click of the button.”

The result, the group said, was “a more than 2,400 percent increase in online activism.”




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