Reporting Live. Very Carefully.
Fearful of costly FCC fines, news directors ponder the risks of reporting from the field, where the unexpected can happen
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/3/2005 8:00:00 PM
During the recent San Francisco Pride Parade, KRON News Director Mark Antonitis began to feel a little tense when he saw a group of female motorcyclists head toward him. Referred to as "Dykes on Bikes," some members of the entourage are sometimes known to ride topless" and they were moving into camera range.
Besides Antonitis, almost everyone involved with the story that day--the program director, producers, photographers, audio technicians and reporters--was on the lookout for a shot that might earn them an indecency fine from the FCC. "Everyone is aware they have to be conscious of this,"Antonitis says. Luckily, the bikers passed--some topless--but no nudity got on-air.
Young Broadcasting-owned KRON has reason to be careful: The station is still fighting a $27,500 fine for a 2002 incident on the early-morning news show when a "Puppetry of the Penis" troupe member, known for a genitals-as-puppets stage act, unveiled a star member of the cast on live TV. KRON says the FCC's ruling is unfair and inappropriate. Since then, Antonitis says, KRON is on high-alert for indecency infractions.
It now airs specials, such as parades, on a delay. Zapped from the Pride Parade about a week ago were four potentially fine-inducing scenes: an anti-circumcision group, a giant inflatable penis, a drag queen with fake breasts and bare-breasted parade walkers. For now, the station's newscasts are still live, but it is considering a similar delay.
Such vigilance may sound paranoid, but around the country, local stations are installing expensive new tape-delay equipment, scouting locations in advance and warning camera crews about the potential for indecent shots due to the FCC's recent crackdown on indecency offensives. While no stations have delayed news broadcasts yet, much of what small markets consider news--parades, sporting events, town hall meetings--is being altered.
Recent high-profile incidents, capped by U2 lead singer Bono's use of the F-word on live TV, have forced stations to reconsider the FCC's traditionally lenient eye toward news and related events. Prodding the agency are conservative watchdog groups, such as the Parents Television Council, which are constantly on the prowl for indecency infractions.
Empowered by public support and increased indecency complaints to the FCC, Congress is hammering out tough new laws. The House already passed an indecency bill that would raise the fine for individual stations from $32,500, the current maximum, to up to $500,000. Versions of legislation in the Senate call for fines between $325,000 and $500,000.
Afraid to take chances, local broadcasters are responding by altering--or halting altogether--the one asset that makes local stations so valuable to their communities: live TV. Since the 1950s, local stations have delivered live telecasts tailored to their markets. By the 1970s, technological advancements allowed reporters to transmit live reports from out in the field, giving viewers instant access to breaking stories. Now such open available access presents danger for station managers.
The fear in newsrooms is palpable. "Live TV as we know it could be imperiled," says Jim Keelor, CEO of Liberty Corp., which owns 15 TV stations. "We have no choice but to take necessary precautions."
No Guidance From the FCC
Says Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center, which studies First Amendment issues, "It can only result in less coverage of matters of public concern.â€�
To attract an FCC fine, a program must first be found to shock, titillate or pander to the audience. Second, it must be graphic in its depiction of sexual or excretory activities. Finally, it must be found to violate community standards. Under current FCC rules, stations are banned from airing obscene material, but indecent content can air in the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. "safe harbor" when children are unlikely to be watching TV.
For years, news has been left relatively alone while entertainment and sports programming have been the targets of indecency campaigns. But the mood in Washington is less tolerant. The FCC's recent flip-flop on its decision in the case of U2 frontman Bono should give stations pause. During NBC's 2003 Golden Globes telecast, Bono used the phrase "f-cking brilliant." The FCC initially ruled that was not indecent because it was "fleeting and in a non-sexual context." Last fall, though, the commission reconsidered and said the outburst was in fact indecent. The FCC did not fine NBC or its affiliates but warned such expletives would not be tolerated in the future.
"We don't have any definition from the FCC of news," says First Amendment lawyer John Crigler, of the Washington firm Garvey Schubert Barer. "I'm not sure the commission would say anything is off limits any longer.â€�
"He's f-cking dead"
Stations can draw fines without even trying. Phoenix TV stations carried the funeral for former NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman live last year, but were forced to cut away when a family member used foul language. According to online accounts, his brother, Rich Tillman, said: "Pat isn't with God. He's f-cking dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's f-cking dead.â€�
An outburst by one local news reporter, WCBS New York's Arthur Chi'en, cost him his job. Chi'en uttered an expletive on-air after an intern from the Opie & Anthony radio show jumped into the background during his live report. WCBS promptly fired him. "There is no place for one of our reporters or anchors to use inappropriate language on-air," says Fred Reynolds, CEO of Viacom's station group. WCBS and Viacom's other stations work on a zero-tolerance policy for on-air conduct, which Reynolds says was in place long before the Janet Jackson nipple-baring incident at the Super Bowl. After the CBS O&Os were fined $27,500 each for that incident, Viacom's stations are certainly more vigilant than ever.
Some pranks are actually organized efforts. Newsbreakers, a self-described media watchdog group that says it is fed up with TV news, tries to disrupt local news reports. Started by a former cable news producer in Rochester, N.Y., the pranksters jump into reporters' live shots, although they do not swear or flash the camera. Dressed up as bizarre characters, such as ninjas, Newsbreakers have disrupted broadcasts in upstate New York, Ohio and Arizona. Opie & Anthony supporters similarly insert themselves, trying to draw attention to the shock jocks' move to satellite radio. The shenanigans so far may be innocuous, but, as WCBS' Chi'en showed, they can cause reporters to lose their cool on-air.
In many newsrooms, managers say they now regularly coach staffers on how to handle such situations. At WSMV Nashville, Tenn., News Director Andrew Finlayson preaches what he calls the "three Asâ€�: anticipate, be aware and be alert. "You need to think before you even get out the door," he says. For example, when covering the recent Bonnaroo music festival, Finlayson wanted to make his crew less conspicuous in the crowds. The reporter used a wireless mike to roam around, while the cameraman hung back. "The camera attracts a lot of attention," Finlayson says. Even so, the director was standing by at the station to cut away.
When they can, news directors try to map out coverage in advance. WCVB Boston sends its news operations manager out to scout sites and determine where best to position trucks and reporters. News Director Coleen Marren says she likes, if possible, to build a platform for the reporter and cameraman, so they can shoot down on the crowd. But breaking news stories still leave a station vulnerable to interruptions. "If someone at a fire scene comes by and extends a middle finger, there is not much we can do, yet we can be held responsible," says Liberty's Keelor.
The surest way to keep inappropriate content off the airwaves is to air news on a tape-delay, giving producers time to weed out anything inappropriate. Some broadcast groups, including LIN Television and NBC and CBS-owned stations, have installed tape-delaying equipment for event and entertainment programming, although none use it for their newscasts.
At the network level, broadcasters are similarly cautious, instituting short tape delays on many entertainment specials, such as the Grammys, and sporting events. Even some cable networks, which are so far immune from the FCC's rules and fines, have taken precautions. In 2004, MTV aired its annual Video Music Awards with a five-second audio and video delay. At other times the networks aren't so cautious--and the local broadcasters are the ones to pay. TV stations can be fined for infractions on network programming. In October 2004, Fox stations were slapped with a $1.2 million fine for indecent content on reality show Married by America. (The stations have appealed.) NBC stations were not fined for Bono but put on notice (along with other broadcasters) that future profanity on-air would be penalized.
That very concern prompted more than 60 ABC affiliates to balk at airing epic movie Saving Private Ryan, which features profanity, last Veteran's Day, even though the network had carried the unedited movie twice before without incident. Stations asked the FCC to provide guidance as to whether they would be fined, but the commission said it could not comment in advance.
Stations can also be penalized for infractions on their own programming, including news and local specials. To date, because of the ambiguity of the rules, FCC fines for individual stations are rare: Only two local stations ran into trouble. In 2004, KRON was fined $27,500 for the "Puppetry of the Penis" incident. And in 2001, WKAQ, the Telemundo affiliate in Puerto Rico, was fined $21,000 for two sexually explicit skits.
"Unworkable and Unnecessary"
The day when entire newscasts are tape-delayed is coming, say some local news executives, although many are against it. "It runs counter to the whole definition of news," says Fred D'Ambrosi, news director for KMFB San Diego. "We want to be up to the minute, live and not distort what people are seeing in any way." The Radio-Television News Directors Association is adamantly opposed. "It is unworkable and unnecessary," says RTNDA counsel Kathleen Kirby.
Locally produced specials are another story. News directors say because these are not usually breaking news events, a delay does not materially alter the telecast. WISH Indianapolis, a LIN station, airs local fare such as its NFL pre-game show and a pre-Indianapolis 500 black-tie gala with a five-second delay. "You never know who will run by," says General Manager Jeff White. "Viewers don't see a difference.â€�
Installing such equipment is expensive. In 2004, LIN TV plunked down about $200,000 to equip 24 stations with delaying devices. At Nexstar Broadcasting, which operates and owns 46 stations, VP/Corporate News Director Susana Schuler says the costs are prohibitive for small-market stations. "We think the FCC is willing to understand that when we can control things, we will," she says. "But until the technology is more affordable, we have other priorities.â€�
At least one broadcast group pledges its news will remain live, despite any financial risk. "We're going to be out on the streets. We're about live and breaking news," says Viacom's Reynolds. "If we get a penalty for that, there is not much I can do. We're not changing our duty to the communities we serve."
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