NAB 2015

Struggling To Make Sense Of That WDBJ Fine

The massive $325,000 indecency fine levied on the Schurz Communications CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Va., puzzles an NAB Show panel. The infraction was fleeting, it was a fraction of the screen, it was news and most importantly, it was a mistake,” said attorney Dennis Corbett. In addition, the ruling did nothing to clarify the commission’s stated goal of going after only “egregious” indecency cases.

Broadcast attorneys are still grappling with how to interpret the FCC’s record $325,000 indecency fine against WDBJ, the Schurz Communications CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Va.

Not only was it the first indecency fine in seven years, it was the FCC’s biggest fine ever levied for a single infraction. In between the two fines, the FCC disposed of 70% of its backlogged indecency complaints, saying it would focus only on “egregious” cases. The FCC opened a proceeding, never finished it and never defined egregious.

Now the industry doesn’t know if the FCC had “egregious” in mind when it levied the whopping fine and once again, is faced with not knowing what the broadcast indecency standards are.

“That egregious policy wasn’t mentioned in the notice of apparent liability [against WDBJ],” Dennis Corbett, an attorney with Lerman Senter said during an NAB Show session Tuesday afternoon. “Nothing happened for a long time, now this [indecency case],” Corbett said.

In Corbett’s view, the offensive image displayed on the air for three seconds as part of a story during the evening didn’t fall within the definition of egregious. “It was fleeting, it was a fraction of the screen, it was news and most importantly, it was a mistake,” Corbett said. “Given all those factors, I don’t see that the FCC is using utmost restraint; [the FCC] threw the book at them.”

If, as FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc said earlier he was bringing cases to act as a deterrent, the WDBJ case wouldn’t seem to fit.


“There’s not a great outbreak of these images on TV,” Corbett said.

Other attorneys on the panel agreed that the case created a strict liability atmosphere that could have a chilling effect on news coverage.

“The FCC doesn’t give enough guidance,” said Sherrese Smith, a partner with Paul Hastings LLP. “If we could get more explanation around ‘egregious’ that would be great.”

Read TVNewscheck’s other NAB Show policy coverage here. Find our full convention coverage here.

Comments (5)

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Gregg Palermo says:

April 15, 2015 at 8:44 am

I think we can all agree that the display, however fleeting, of adult genitalia engaged in a sexual act is egregious. Quit whining and pay the fine.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    April 16, 2015 at 12:54 am

    In the long run, paying will be cheaper than paying lawyers multiple 6 figures to fight it for years. D BP loves to talk about lawsuits, but like his so called LPTV lawsuit, someone has to have deep pockets to dig in – which most likely WDBJ (nor the LPTV coalition) will have or want to commit to.

    Cameron Miller says:

    April 16, 2015 at 9:29 am

    Go away Insider, you’re not helping one bit!

Ellen Samrock says:

April 15, 2015 at 11:26 am

This is nothing more than cheap showboating on the part of Travis LeBlanc. “LeBlanc – Tough on fleeting obscenities.” The FCC already has dozens of pending court cases, LeBlanc just added one more to the pile. And more than likely the FCC will lose this one too as it has in similar past cases.

Stephen Bernard & David K. Randall says:

April 15, 2015 at 2:15 pm

Anything to foster an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty among broadcasters to make that auction look like the best option, right guys? AT&T and VZW want that spectrum but they have to chase the “squatters” away first.