Think Tank Express: WDBJ learns the hard way on indecency

site-header-logo-pngOn Monday, the FCC fined CBS affiliate WDBJ in Roanoke, Va. a record $325,000 for an indecency violation – airing a clip showing an image of an adult web site in relation to a 2012 story about a former porn star looking to join the volunteer EMT rescue squad, which aired during a 6 p.m. newscast.

Generally, the FCC fines local stations for public file and children’s ad violations, but this is rare indeed. Roanoke lies within the Roanoke-Lynchburg DMA, which ranks as the 67th-largest in the country.

According to the Roanoke Times, several Roanoke County officials said it was inappropriate for a former female porn star to train with the Cave Spring Rescue Squad. A WDBJ reporter urged viewers to “google her name” and see all the pornographic images of her pop up.

WDBJ blamed an editing error for the mishap – turned out someone was using a 4:3 (in length and width) standard definition monitor in an editing bay instead of a 16:9 one. When the material featuring the adult website hit the air – in 16:9 high definition,  the edge of the screen showed the image of an banner ad featuring someone doing um… “the stroke”.

First of all, were these guys high? While there were good intentions, airing a clip of a porn site – at 6 p.m. – was of poor judgement…it wasn’t really necessary, and adds nothing to the srory. Second, you’d think the owner – South Bend, Ind.-based Schurz Communications (who also owns CBS South Bend affiliate WSBT and the South Bend Tribune) would spring for better equipment in the editing bays. Anyone in video editing knows you can’t see all of a 16:9 picture on a 4:3 monitor.

WDBJ’s news director during this period left two years ago and escaped any kind of punishment.

When the fine was announced, out came the lobbyists looking to score political points (the Parents Television Council praised the FCC decision; the National Association of Broadcasters condemned it.) Granted, this is only the second indecency decision handed down in the Tom Wheeler era at the FCC – in 2013, Liberman Broadcasting agreed to pay $110,000 in fines to settle complaints regarding Spanish-language trash talker Jose Luis Sin Censura on its Estrella network, after protests from liberal groups The National Hispanic Media Collation and GLAAD (but not from the conservative PTC.)

Schurz will appeal the fine; it’ll likely be commuted down to a few tens of thousands of dollars. But an incompetent mistake by a WDBJ editor may lead to a chilling effect on local news content, and that’s frightening. More so than ever, it pays to have common sense in the radio and TV business; not doing so would be costly. Literally.