Oprah's show investigated for indecency

The crackdown on smut on America's airwaves has entered new and surprising territory following reports that less than open-minded federal regulators have turned their attention to an unexpected target - the perennially popular Oprah Winfrey Show.

The crackdown on smut on America's airwaves has entered new and surprising territory following reports that less than open-minded federal regulators have turned their attention to an unexpected target - the perennially popular Oprah Winfrey Show.

On a rampage since Janet Jackson let a breast slip from her costume during the mid-game music show at the 1 February Super Bowl, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has acknowledged that it is looking into complaints that Winfrey may have crossed the decency line in at least one of her shows. Winfrey has Howard Stern, America's favourite radio shock-jock, to blame for her troubles. Stern has himself been the target of relentless pressure from Washington to tone down his broadcasts and recently struck back by suggesting to his listeners that Winfrey was surely a worse offender.

"If they fine me, they gotta fine Oprah - the darling of the world," Stern told his listeners two weeks ago. The DJ directed them to his website where he provided a transcript of a Winfrey broadcast about teenage sex and included instructions how they could file a complaint with the FCC. Sources at the FCC confirmed that the agency had received about 700 complaints about Winfrey. While most of them might have been spurred by Stern, apparently they have been enough to prompt a formal investigation.

So far, Stern has been able to cling on to his perch, offering a mix of music and sometimes immodest chit-chat every morning on the New York radio station K-Rock, owned by Infinity Broadcasting. Infinity has already been fined for some of what he has told his listeners. But another broadcasting chain, Clearchannel, dropped him from many of its stations last month.

If Stern is trying to make a monkey of the government, he scored points on Thursday. Fans were appalled when they tuned into K-Rock only to hear a recorded statement from its management saying that it had succumbed to government pressure and removed the DJ from the air indefinitely. For an hour, two other DJs played middle-brow music and told listeners they were offering "fun without the filth". The worst nightmare of Stern's devoted followers seemed to have come to pass. However, they had not checked the date on their calendars - 1 April. Stern re-emerged to tell them they had been fooled.

It was a stunt with a serious message, however, as the pressure from regulators on broadcasters gets more intense with every passing day. On Wednesday, the FCC separately announced that it was also zeroing in on America's crop of day-time soap operas to determine whether they also were getting a little too steamy.

FCC officials reminded reporters that television broadcasters are barred from showing programmes between 6am and 10pm that in any way display "sexual or excretory functions".

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