- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

Legislation that would stiffen penalties against broadcasters who air indecent material has stalled in the Senate, primarily because the bill includes a provision that would suspend rules that allow media conglomerates to get bigger.

If the standstill continues, some lawmakers and activists fear their campaign against content the government deems inappropriate for the airwaves will lose momentum.

“We’re more than disappointed; we’re outraged. We need to see leadership on this issue,” said Lara Mahaney, director of corporate and entertainment affairs for the Parents Television Council, an advocacy group pushing for higher indecency fines against broadcasters.

The Senate bill is similar to legislation the House passed overwhelmingly.

President Bush has endorsed the House version.

Both bills raise the amount the Federal Communications Commission can fine broadcasters for violating the government’s indecency rules, which prohibit references to sexual and excretory functions on the airwaves between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. when children are most likely to tune in.

Under both bills, the maximum penalty rises from $27,500 to $500,000 per violation.

But Senate members attached several amendments to their bill, unlike their House counterparts.

The prickliest amendment suspends the FCC’s new media-ownership rules for one year to give Congress time to study the links between a company’s size and indecent content.

The FCC adopted the ownership rules in June 2003. The regulations allow media conglomerates to grow larger and lift a long-standing prohibition against one company owning multiple TV stations, radio stations and newspapers in a single city.

The Senate bill includes an amendment that requires the FCC to consider barring violent TV shows when children are most likely to be watching.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the bill and the amendments in March, but the legislation has never gone to the floor for a vote by the full Senate.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, is considering attaching the original bill — minus the media-ownership and TV-violence provisions — as an amendment to the defense spending bill.

“The senator wants to move the underlying indecency legislation proposal along in the most expedient way possible,” said Brian Hart, his spokesman.

Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican and the sponsor of the House version of the bill, said that next week he will ask colleagues in the Senate to move the bill along.

“It seems like everything in the Senate is like watching paint dry, but we’re not giving up hope,” Mr. Upton said.

The impasse on Capitol Hill is a dramatic shift from earlier this year.

Lawmakers in both chambers raced to embrace Mr. Upton’s bill in the weeks after the Feb. 1 Super Bowl halftime show, when pop singer Justin Timberlake caused an uproar by briefly exposing one of Janet Jackson’s breasts before millions of television viewers.

But the headlines over Miss Jackson’s breast have been replaced by weightier concerns, such as the Iraqi prison scandal and rising gasoline prices. Lawmakers who campaign against indecency too hard run the risk of appearing out of touch, political analysts say.

Also, the number of new indecency complaints to the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that regulates the airwaves, has slowed in recent weeks, an indication that the public may be losing interest in indecency.

The issue hasn’t died, though: The FCC is still investigating dozens of complaints filed at the height of the Super Bowl brouhaha, which means more fines are likely.

On Wednesday, the agency struck a deal with radio giant Clear Channel Communications Inc., which agreed to pay a record $1.75 million to settle unpaid indecency fines.

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