FCC Overrules Staff in F-Word Furore

22 March 2004

The Federal Communications Commission has overruled its own staff as it continues its crusade against broadcast indecency.

In a highly unusual move, the five-member FCC last week rejected a decision by David Solomon, head of its Enforcement Bureau, and ruled that rock star Bono had broken obscenity rules during NBC's live TV coverage of the 2003 Golden Globe Awards.

The singer, frontman of Irish group U2, used the phrase "f***ing brilliant". However, Solomon initially ruled that the outburst did not rate as indecent in the context in which it was used -- a decision that attracted widespread criticism.

But despite ruling that Bono and NBC broke the rules, the FCC will not impose fines. The regulator's chairman Michael Powell insisted the reversal of Solomon's decision was enough to show broadcasters "that the gratuitous use of such vulgar language on broadcast television will not be tolerated."

NBC, doubtless delighted to have escaped financially unscathed, welcomed the outcome. "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."

US authorities are keen to be seen acting against obscenity in the wake of Janet Jackson's 'inadvertent' breast-baring during the Super Bowl -- a stance many suggest is not unrelated to this year's presidential election.

In addition to the NBC/Bono ruling, the FCC last week fined high-profile DJ Howard Stern $27,500 (€22,281; £15,010) for a 2001 broadcast. Stern's employer, Viacom unit Infinity Broadcasting, picked up a $7,000 penalty for breaking indecency rules. And Clear Channel, America's largest radio group, was told it faced a fine of $55,000 -- its third obscenity charge in under two months.

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff