Kevin J. Martin, Commissioner
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554
Mr. Brent L. Bozell, III
Founder and President
Parents Television Council
325 South Patrick
Alexandria, VA 22314
July 8, 2003
First, I want to thank the Parents Television Council and the many organizations with which you are working for calling attention to the issue of indecency on our airwaves. I share your concern about the increasing coarseness of the programming on television and radio.
The FCC plays an important role in protecting Americans—particularly children—from obscene and indecent material. We have been charged by Congress to implement its ban against broadcasting obscene or indecent programming, and I take this responsibility seriously.
I believe the Commission could more effectively implement this statutory mandate. I therefore appreciate the requests and suggestions you made in your April 30 letter regarding specific steps the Commission should make to, as you put it, "show that it is serious about penalizing broadcast indecency."
I strongly support your request that we clarify what materials a citizen must provide when submitting an indecency complaint. In a separate statement I wrote in May of 2002, I noted that many consumers had expressed frustration with how we applied our indecency rule, largely because the Commission had placed too high a burden on viewers and listeners by requiring that they include with any complaint a tape or transcript of the program in question. I wrote separately to express how pleased I was that the Commission finally was clarifying that a tape or transcript is not required. Unfortunately, there is still some confusion over this issue. People should not need to submit a tape or transcript with a complaint; such a requirement is overly burdensome. I certainly support making this clear on our website.
I also support your request that the Commission commit to resolving indecency complaints within a specific time frame. In fact, in a speech I gave in February of 2002, I called on the agency to place such deadlines on all of our agency complaints. All parties – consumers as well as the companies we regulate – deserve timely responses to the issues that concern them.
I agree that we need to impress upon the industry that we are serious about enforcing our indecency rules. Statutory changes to the maximum fine we can levy would help, but we do not need to wait for Congress to tighten our penalties. There are steps we can take now. For instance, in a separate statement I issued last April, I urged the Commission to impose a higher fine on the licensee at issue. I explained that we could have considered each instance of indecent material, even within a single program, to constitute a separate violation. Our practice of considering all indecent utterances occurring within the same program (or even the same day) to be just one "violation" can have the perverse result of giving a licensee a "free pass" for what can be several hours of programming once the broadcaster has made one indecent comment. With no repercussions flowing from subsequent violations, our practice actually could create an incentive to continue broadcasting indecent material. I do not think this is what Congress intended when it instructed us to prohibit indecent "utterances."
Classifying each indecent utterance as a separate violation could result in significantly higher fines for many complaints. Congressional action raising the statutory limit of each indecency fine also would help. Together, these steps could create a sufficient disincentive to violating our indecency regulations that broadcasters would vigilantly monitor their programming and emphasize to their on-air talent that indecent material is not to be tolerated.
Finally, I understand your frustration with the Commission practice of treating multiple complaints about the same program as one complaint. When concerned citizens take the time to file a complaint, we should treat and address each complaint. And when thousands of complaints are filed about the same program, the Commission should not only take notice, but also account for each complaint separately when publicly reporting the number of complaints the Commission receives.
The vast majority of broadcasters are good corporate citizens, providing a valuable service to their community and complying with all of our rules, including those regulating indecent programming. Nevertheless, the increase in questionable programming during the hours when children are likely to be watching and listening cannot be overlooked. The Commission must take seriously its obligation to prohibit such programming. Again, I thank the Parents Television Council for your attention to this cause, and look forward to working with my colleagues at the Commission to improve the manner in which we implement and enforce our indecency rules.
Kevin J. Martin
cc: Christian Coalition
Concerned Women for America
Kids First Coalition
Culture and Family Institute
Morality in Media
Family Research Council
Citizens for Community Values