7 of the Biggest FCC Fines of All Time

Business, Money

In 1934, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was established to “regulate interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. The FCC’s jurisdiction covers the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. possessions.”

In the early days of radio, the FCC’s major weapon for deterring indecency was to revoke broadcast licenses. This meant that radio stations and their advertisers had to create their own censorship standards to ensure they didn’t ruffle the FCC’s feathers and get their station pulled from the airwaves.

That was then, and this is now. Today, the FCC levies fines against broadcasters who air indecent content over the air. In fact, the FCC first started using fines as a deterrent in 1975 when they fined radio broadcaster Pacifica Foundation for airing comedian George Carlin’s “Seven words you can’t say on television” routine.

But the FCC doesn’t just dole out fines for airing offensive content. They have a whole set of rules that affect everyone from TV broadcasters to phone companies, and they’re willing to fine anyone who steps out of line.

Check out these 7 super-sized FCC fines.

  1. Univision is fined $24 million for lack of children’s shows—Did you know there are federal regulations that require television broadcasters to devote a portion of their programming to educational and informative shows for kids? Univision learned this the hard way. The television broadcaster was fined a record $24 million for not airing educational fare for children. Apparently, they tried to pass off their telenovelas as educational material, and that just didn’t fly with the FCC.
  2. Qwest gets slapped with $9 million fine for thwarting competition—In 2004, the FCC fined Qwest Communications International a then-record $9 million for failing to follow certain rules to ensure competition for local phone services in Minnesota and Arizona. This is a good reminder that the FCC doesn’t just fine TV and radio broadcasters for their content.
  3. Univision pays another $1 million for accepting payment to play recording artists—Univision is no stranger to FCC fines. Recently, the broadcast company was fined again. This time, they were fined $1 million for accepting payment from record labels in exchange for more radio play for the label’s artists without making the disclosures to listeners. This was deemed as misleading the listening public.
  4. Without a Trace’s teen orgy scene prompts $3.6 million fine for CBS—In December 2004, CBS aired an episode of “Without a Trace” that had a graphic depiction of “teenage boys and girls participating in a sexual orgy.” In an effort to clean the airwaves of indecent programming, the FCC fined CBS and their affiliates $3.6 million.
  5. Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction earns CBS a $550,000 fine—It has been 6 years, but everyone still remembers the controversy created when Janet Jackson’s breast popped out during a Super Bowl halftime show performance, costing CBS more than half a million in fines. The performers tried to pass it off as a “wardrobe malfunction”, but no one was naïve enough to buy it. The fine was initially dismissed in 2008, but to this day, the FCC fine is still being debated.
  6. Bubba the Love Sponge’s shows draw $755,000 fine against Clear Channel—Radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem triggered $755,500 in fines for indecent broadcasts. The FCC fined Clear Channel Communications for airing the indecent broadcasts of 4 Florida stations. The seven segments in question featured characters talking about drugs and sex, and they aired a total of 26 times on the stations.
  7. FCC fines lead Howard Stern to satellite radio—In 1995, Infinity Broadcasting paid $1.7 million for various violations by Stern. Nearly 10 years later, the broadcast company was paying hundreds of thousands more for other indecency fines from Howard Stern’s broadcasts. All of these fines led to Stern’s departure from Clear Channel, causing him to join uncensored satellite radio.

What do you think about the FCC’s fines? A necessary protection against indecency? Or do they go too far?