- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

The House overwhelmingly passed legislation yesterday that sharply increases federal fines for television and radio broadcasters that air material the government deems indecent.

The bipartisan bill passed 391-22. It raises the maximum fine for a broadcast license holder from $27,500 to $500,000 and the fine for performers from $11,000 to $500,000.

The measure also calls on the Federal Communications Commission to consider revoking the operating license of any network that incurs at least three penalties for indecency. The legislation does not apply to cable and satellite providers, whose content is not regulated by the FCC.

President Bush has endorsed the measure.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed a bill Tuesday that would raise fines to $500,000. However, that measure goes further, ordering the FCC to look at ways to protect children from violence on television and hold off on the loosened media-ownership limits the FCC adopted last year.

The amendments on media ownership could threaten the passage of any indecency legislation in the Senate, according to Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who sponsored the bill.

“The rare, paltry fines that the commission assesses have become nothing more than a joke within the broadcast industry,” Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said during floor debate.

Some of the 22 House members who voted against the bill said it was an attack on the First Amendment. Television viewers and radio listeners who are offended by material the government deems indecent should change the channel, opponents argued during floor debate.

“I believe in decency. I believe in Mary Poppins. I believe in all things nice; but make no mistake, this is an assault on freedom of speech,” said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat.

Industry executives have said they are capable of regulating themselves. Several major media companies, including Viacom Inc. and Clear Channel Communications Inc., recently announced strict policies against airing indecent material.

Under FCC rules, over-the-air television and radio stations cannot broadcast material containing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children might tune in.

The House legislation was introduced in January, but it picked up momentum after singer Justin Timberlake uncovered part of pop diva Janet Jackson’s right breast during the televised Super Bowl halftime show Feb. 1. The brief exposure sparked a national debate over indecency on television and radio and generated more than 200,000 complaints to the FCC.

House members originally planned to raise the maximum fine from $27,500 to $275,000, but feared that amount wouldn’t be enough to deter indecency on the airwaves. During hearings on the bill, industry executives insisted they took fines seriously and did not see them only as a cost of doing business.

“I believe we’ve already had an effect on this industry. FCC enforcement was lax and when imposed was largely symbolic. We are changing that,” said Rep. Heather A. Wilson, New Mexico Republican, during floor debate.

Since Feb. 1, Clear Channel — the nation’s largest radio chain with 1,225 stations — has fired the host of its “Bubba the Love Sponge” show, which drew a record $755,000 fine from the FCC in January.

Clear Channel also dropped Howard Stern’s syndicated show from its six stations that carried it and vowed to immediately suspend or fire employees responsible for airing indecent materials. The company also has said it will make performers pay part of any federal fines.

Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a New York Democrat and one of Mr. Stern’s most vocal defenders, said during floor debate that this was “a dangerous time” because the popular radio host was being punished for criticizing the Bush administration.

“I believe [the bill] is a distraction. It is a weapon of mass distraction to keep us away from the real issues at hand. … How else can we explain that the day before his bosses, Clear Channel, were to face a congressional committee, they fire him?”

Industry executives have said stiffer penalties are not needed because the industry can regulate itself.

Clear Channel announced this week that it was investing in new equipment that will allow it to delay offensive material before it reaches the airwaves.

“Voluntary industry initiatives are far preferable to government regulation when dealing with programming issues. NAB does not support the bill as written, but we hear the call of legislators and are committed to taking voluntary action to address this issue,” Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, told the Associated Press.

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