- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

The House overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday that would increase to $325,000 the amount the Federal Communications Commission can fine broadcasters for indecency violations.

The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, approved 379-35, represents a tenfold increase over the current maximum fine of $32,500 per violation, which lawmakers and some parent groups had deemed inadequate since Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl telecast. The law does not apply to cable and satellite broadcasts.

Sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, the legislation passed the Senate with unanimous consent last month and President Bush is expected to sign it.

“After two years, Congress is sending a bill to the president that will raise broadcast indecency fines to a meaningful level,” Mr. Brownback said. “Raising the fines for abusing the public airwaves will hold broadcasters accountable for the content and consequences of their media.”

The House passed a tougher bill sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican, in February 2005 that would have raised the maximum fine to $500,000 and allowed individual performers, such as radio disc jockeys, to be fined without first receiving a warning as is currently the case.

“This bill will put a hole in anyone’s wallet,” said Mr. Upton, adding that the House accepted the Senate bill “to get it done” after more than two years of effort and to help “clear the decks and get ready” a major telecommunications reform bill for a possible vote later this week. The stiffer fines are needed at a time when 30-second Super Bowl ads sell for about $2.5 million, he said.

Mr. Upton said he expects President Bush to sign the legislation within the next week.

The FCC defines broadcast indecency as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.”

“Indecent programming contains patently offensive sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity,” according to the FCC.

Under federal law, radio stations and over-the-air TV channels cannot air any obscene material, and they cannot air indecent material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

“It was about bloody time … this ought to have happened two years ago,” said L. Brent Bozell III, president of the watchdog group Parents Television Council, which has advocated stiffer fines for indecency and led campaigns urging people to contact the FCC with complaints.

Mr. Bozell said the increased fines still may not really hurt the major networks, but should serve as a wake-up call to affiliates “who break the law.”

The nation’s 13,000 radio stations and 1,700 TV stations preferred self-regulation to government intervention, said National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton. If the government insists on regulations, they should be applied equally to cable and satellite TV, and satellite radio stations, he added.

“If we’re going to have an indecency law, which we do, then the enforcement of it should be commensurate with when that rule is broken, and $320,000 means more to the big [companies] than $32,000,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

But Mr. Thompson said he was concerned about how the rules are implemented, specifically if the cultural standards of the portion of the population with young children is imposed on national television programming from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

“The harder thing to manage is how it gets decided when the rules get broken,” he said. “I’d rather it not be decided by the e-mail factories of the Parents Television Council.”

Mr. Bozell brushed aside that criticism, calling it the position of “snotty elites in academia and Hollywood,” who do not recognize that average Americans, regardless of whether they have children, agree with the Parents Television Council’s stance on indecency.

The FCC issued a record $7.9 million in fines in 2004 following the Super Bowl incident, but none last year. In March, the commission proposed a $3.6 million fine against dozens of CBS stations and affiliates for an indecent episode of “Without a Trace,” that aired in December 2004.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide