SBS fails to duck phone call fines


SBS / Spanish Broadcasting SystemPrank calls originating on SBS radio station WSKQ-FM New York, aired there and on WZNT-FM San Juan PR, were hit with NALs for separate incidents. The appeals from SBS have been turned down and the NALs have graduated to Forfeiture Orders.

In both cases, phone calls intended to be played over the air were made to private citizens who were not informed of that fact immediately upon being contacted. That is a violation of the rules.

The WZNT incidents dated back to 4/13/06 and related to a program segment called “You Fell For It.” The show was based on listener-suggested prank calls to their friends and relatives. Two pranks on the date in question resulted in complaints.

SBS said the complainant lacked standing and that the FCC lacked evidence; it further said that if SBS’s request to have the fine cancelled entirely was not granted, than a reduction of the $25K NAL it was hit with was warranted.

The FCC responded that there never been a requirement that only the actual victim of a phone violation can make a complaint. It further said that the prompt and detailed complaint was sufficient evidence, particularly in this case where there is no countervailing evidence at all.

SBS also suggested that for all the FCC knew, the program was “theater” – a fictional performance imitating a spontaneous prank call. The FCC noted that this argument was not mentioned at all during the original SBS to the NAL, and that it was never mentioned by any of the air staff involved in the segment, and that it was therefore unpersuasive.

The WSKQ-FM violation involved a particularly pernicious prank call made 9/23/08 in which an unsuspecting woman was called and informed by somebody posing as a hospital employee that her husband had been in an accident and died.

That one resulted in a $16K NAL.

SBS tried to duck that one by claiming the segment was produced by a contractor, not the licensee. It noted that the plain language of the regulations refer to recordings made by the licensee, and argued that since the licensee did not make the recording, it could not be held accountable. It also noted that the call recipient eventually allowed the call to be aired.

The FCC said that SBS is responsible for whatever goes out over the air on its stations, and on top of that, it clearly hired the contractor to produce content for WSKQ. It added that the fact that the call recipient granted permission to air the segment did not mitigate the station’s responsibility to make it immediately known that the call might be broadcast.

Both fines stand, for a total penalty of $41K.

RBR-TVBR observation: We’re glad that the FCC has only the tiniest role in content regulation and that we live in a nation where freedom of speech is a basic right.

That said, we find it astounding that anybody was able to find any humor whatsoever in the appalling and mean-spirited prank, telling an unsuspecting woman about the death of her husband. We are glad that we have never personally heard any radio station stoop to these depths in the name of “entertainment.”

If it was us, we would have reprimanded and perhaps fired the people responsible for this bit, we would have sincerely and profusely apologized to our community of listeners, and rather than fight it, we would have paid the FCC fine promptly as an admission that our programming went over a line, and on a more pragmatic note, to avoid having this shameful incident aired out in the press yet again.