FCC, Fox Battle Over Commission’s Authority

Published May 31, 2016

The Federal Communications Commission and the Fox Television network are at odds over the content in the January 3 episode of the animated series American Dad. In June the commission said it planned to fine the network $25,000 for not complying with the FCC’s discovery requests, which included requiring Fox to supply a list of all stations that aired the episode. Fox argues that part of the FCC’s request exceeds the commission’s authority.

The investigation stemmed from the episode’s depiction of a sexual perversion which elicited a complaint from a viewer in Dallas, Texas. The FCC supplied Fox with a copy of the complaint against company-owned KDFW (TV) Dallas, plus the commission’s request for a list of other Fox stations that aired the show and Fox’s content-rating information for the Dallas station.

Fox provided the KDFW information, but said the remainder of the request was beyond the FCC’s authority. The FCC countered, “parties must comply with Bureau orders even if they believe them to be outside the Commission’s authority.”

Several FCC Complaints

The American Dad case is another instance of the legal rancor between Fox Television and the FCC regarding obscenity issues. These include Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” incident during the Super Bowl XXXVIII broadcast in 2004 and the utterance of profanities during live broadcasts in 2002 and 2003.

On July 13 the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the FCC’s indecency policy, ruling the commission was wrong to find Fox in violation for the 2002 and 2003 incidents. The judges also said—without prodding—that they thought the Supreme Court’s 1978 FCC v. Pacifica Foundation case, which provides the foundation for regulating broadcast content, should someday be reversed. The ruling did not directly address the issues regarding the American Dad episode.

Veteran comedian Pat Cooper says the FCC’s action is unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money.

“You see that kind of stuff in National Geographic all of the time,” he said. “There is too much trouble in New York, too many wars, to worry about this.”

Fine Is ‘Pocket Change’

“The FCC again reveals one of the defining characteristics of its exercise of power: Arrogance. This $25,000 fine is not even for indecency but for failing to ask ‘how high?’ when the FCC said jump,” said Jim Lakely, co-director of the Center on the Digital Economy at The Heartland Institute in Chicago.

“Since the only complaint about that episode of American Dad came from [someone watching] Fox’s Dallas affiliate, that is where the FCC’s enforcement focus should lie—or at least where Fox’s reaction to the complaint should lie,” Lakely added. “Isn’t there some bureaucrat in the massive FCC who can just assume that most—if not all—Fox affiliates aired that episode of American Dad? Apparently, not. Instead, the FCC has to flex its muscles and impose a $25,000 fine, with a statement that ‘parties must comply with Bureau orders even if they believe them to be outside the Commission’s authority.’

Lakely continued: “That’s a pretty sweeping definition of a bureaucracy’s authority, and I applaud Fox for resisting it. The network can obviously absorb the fine. It’s pocket change to a company as big as Fox. But it’s right to push back on principle in this matter, and to resist such arrogant and bullying tactics by the FCC.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.