CBS Protests 'Without a Trace' Fine

The record $3.3 million fine the Federal Communications Commission leveled against CBS' "Without a Trace" should be dropped, the network's affiliates argue, because almost no one who complained about it actually watched the episode.

In a filing with the FCC, CBS stations argue that complaints against a December 2004 airing of "Without a Trace" are invalid because they came not from individual viewers but as the result of e-mail campaigns by advocacy groups, primarily the Parents Television Council and the American Family Association.

Since FCC rules require complaints to be made by viewers in the community where a station is licensed, the affiliates contend, those that aren't should be thrown out.

"Permitting enforcement reliance on a uniform, national mass e-mail campaign is akin to simply permitting the commission to single out programming it dislikes -- even in the absence of any viewer complaint -- and target that programming for punishment," the CBS stations assert. "The commission wisely has eschewed playing the role of roving enforcer of indecency policy in the past, and it should continue to do so here."

The "Without a Trace" fine was levied against 103 CBS affiliates who aired the episode -- a repeat of an episode that first aired in November 2003 -- before 10 p.m. local time on Dec. 31, 2004. The PTC and American Family Association complaints focused on a simulated group-sex scene at a high-school party.

Though no bared body parts were shown, the commission found the scene included "explicit and lengthy ... depictions of sexual activity, including apparent intercourse." (The episode's first airing also prompted complaints, which were dismissed when CBS signed a consent decree in 2004 dealing with numerous FCC rulings.)

All 4,211 complaints that the CBS affiliates examined under a Freedom of Information Act request were generated by the PTC or American Family Association web sites. Of those, only two mentioned actually having watched the scene in question.