- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

A House committee yesterday passed a measure to dramatically increase penalties against broadcasters that air indecent material.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, by a vote of 47-1, approved fines of up to $500,000 for each violation — nearly double the increase it had previously sought.

Lawmakers called initially for an increase in fines to $275,000 per offense, up from $27,500. But they agreed to higher fines after parent groups and some broadcasters argued that higher fines would provide a greater deterrent.

Under the measure, broadcasters would have their licenses revoked after a third offense. To speed up indecency investigations, the bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to rule on a case within 180 days.

“For too long, the content on our nation’s airwaves has been increasingly leaning towards objectionable content,” said Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican, and a lead author of the bill. “We have forged what I believe is a bill that will protect young people from indecency and deter companies from pushing the envelope of appropriate broadcasting.”

The full House could vote on the bill as early as next week. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee plans to consider its own version of the legislation Tuesday.

The House bill, know as the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004, has moved quickly. It was introduced Jan. 21 and moved to the front of the Energy Committee’s agenda after pop singer Janet Jackson bared her breast Feb. 1 during a live concert aired by CBS during the Super Bowl halftime.

Within days, executives from nearly all of the major television and radio networks had testified before Congress alongside parent groups and First Amendment lawyers.

Last month, Clear Channel Communications Inc., which owns 1,200 radio stations, fired one host in Florida for his on-air behavior and pulled the show of popular shock jock Howard Stern from six stations. The company also implemented a “zero-tolerance” policy for indecency, meaning that anyone under investigation by the FCC would be immediately suspended. Clear Channel said it would fire anyone fined by the FCC.

“This bill is already making a difference,” Mr. Upton said.

Broadcast indecency has been a recurring topic on Capitol Hill since January 2003, when rock star Bono uttered an expletive during a live broadcast of the “Golden Globe Awards” on NBC. The FCC investigated but found that no indecency rules had been violated, saying the expletive uttered by Bono was not offensive in the context it was used.

The ruling sparked an outcry from lawmakers, who quickly introduced a bill imposing stricter fines for broadcasters. Another bill under discussion would ban outright certain words on broadcasts.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents most local television and radio stations, says that the industry should be left to regulate itself.

“NAB believes that voluntary industry initiatives are far preferable to government regulation when dealing with programming issues,” said NAB Chief Executive Officer Edward O. Fritts. “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.”

The NAB will host an industry forum on responsible programming March 31.

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