When it comes to indecency charges, LIN Television CEO Gary Chapman isn't leaving anything to chance—not even in his local newscasts.
LIN, the 24th-largest station group, paid $200,000 to equip its 24 stations with devices that delay the broadcast of live signals and can replace video carrying indecent words or pictures. "News organizations can't control what is being said on the air all the time," Chapman explained during the National Association of Broadcasters show last week, "and this is just one more step we can take to comply with the current standards of indecency."
The LIN purchase highlights how the fear of indecency fines has forced TV stations to at least consider vetting their newscasts with the help of protective devices. LIN is the first station group to install the signal-delay devices specifically—and consistently—for local newscasts. ABC, CBS, and NBC have similar systems but say they are deployed only in special circumstances.
While the FCC has generally not focused on news programs for indecent material, local newscasts are now vulnerable under the current regime, said Kathleen Kirby, communications attorney with Washington law firm Wiley, Rein and Fielding. Alluding to the NBC-Bono decision, she noted that "some words are inherently indecent and profane." Context, she said, has been completely removed from the debate.
At the Radio-Television News Director Association conference during NAB, Jeff Wald, news director at Tribune-owned KTLA Los Angeles, recounted a recent story on a protest where a car was vandalized and marked with a slew of expletives. The car was shown during the story but with the expletives digitally tiled so they couldn't be read. Showing viewers even written profanity, even as part of a news story, warned attorney Kirby, is to risk the wrath of the FCC.
FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy may have helped boost traffic on the exhibit floor to booths that sell signal-delay units. Lots of stations do good news work in the community, she admitted, but, "if you cross the line, we're still going to nail you for it."
Under the strictest interpretation of the FCC's broadcast-indecency rules, for example, during a live shot for the 6 p.m. news, a streaker could run behind a reporter and yell, "F*** you!" and the station might face a $1 million fine—$500,000 for the profane utterance and another $500,000 for the nudity. A provision in proposed Senate legislation would trigger a license-revocation proceeding for a station with three indecency strikes.
Although the FCC's penalties may have created potential problems for TV stations, the actions have created profits for a small group of equipment companies that sell signal-delay systems. Leitch, Prime Image, and Encore drew hundreds of visitors on the exhibit floor at NAB last week, selling devices that range from $8,000 to $30,000 each at a quick clip.
Rodney Hampton, vice president, sales and marketing for Prime Image, says his sales are up five-fold "post-Janet," referring to Janet Jackson's Super Bowl escapade. He says he's working four major-group deals that could result in the sale of another 120 units. Broadcast stations "are listening to the FCC," he says. He calls his machine the "Shaq Stopper," a reference to the epithet-riddled interview that Los Angeles Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal gave to ABC during a game earlier this year.
The video-delay equipment is easy enough to use. It's basically a computer hard drive or server in a box through which the station's signal is fed before going out over the air. If a person monitoring the live feed sees something inappropriate, for example, he or she pushes a button to freeze a frame. A second button inserts the replacement video, which is already teed up in the computer and ready to go, says John Vine, vice president and chief engineer at LIN.
In the Shaquille O'Neal incident, for example, if the curse words had been caught in time, ABC might have yanked O'Neal and inserted a wide shot of the arena he was playing in. Leitch's NAB demonstration showed a streaker running behind a reporter. The streaker is "frozen," then zapped and replaced by a tight shot of the journalist inset within a map graphic relevant to the story.
"The downside," says Vine, is that someone has to monitor the live feed constantly, which adds another cost, as well as another potential for mishap.
On the audio side, a brand-new product attracting a lot of buzz is the Guardien "profanity buster" from Enco (see box). The beauty of this unit is that, once it's programmed, there's no need for constant supervision.
While many station managers and engineers were interested, some were absolutely offended by the notion that the FCC would punish them for an errant curse word that slips into a newscast during a legitimate news story. And they have no plans to censor their news. Said Cox Broadcasting President Andy Fisher, "It's a real bad time in America if we're going to be subjected to after-the-fact reviews" of whether local-news content meets indecency standards.
Post-Newsweek stations President Alan Frank agrees. "It's not appropriate, and we're not going to do it," he said, adding that there are situations where precautions are necessary. "If it's [Texas Tech head basketball coach] Bobby Knight, you probably shouldn't take him live," said Frank. "Be aware of the situation."
KTLA is considering buying new signal-delay equipment. The current political climate, said Wald, "has had a chilling effect to say the least."