- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

From combined dispatches

The Federal Communications Commission does not have the authority to fine or take other action against fired radio host Don Imus’ offensive comments, the agency head told lawmakers yesterday.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said Congress gave the FCC authority to issue fines only for the broadcast of indecent content, which is limited to sexual and excretory language, or for inappropriate children’s programming.

“Imus’ comments were obviously very offensive, more offensive than some of the indecent remarks we’ve fined people for in the past,” Mr. Martin said during a budget hearing before a House Appropriations subcommittee. “The commission doesn’t fine based on whether or not something is offensive language.”

Mr. Martin said the FCC has received a number of complaints about Mr. Imus referring to the Rutgers University women’s college basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” on his morning radio program earlier this month. But the FCC’s authority is limited by Congress, which spelled out the two areas for which the agency can issue fines.

The FCC fined CBS, the most-watched television network, $550,000 after the exposure of one of Janet Jackson’s breasts during the 2004 Super Bowl telecast, a decision the network has appealed.

Indecent lyrics are bleeped or edited out in songs when played on the radio.

The appropriate recourse for angry listeners, Mr. Martin said, is to complain when a broadcast station’s license is up for renewal.

Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Michigan Democrat, said Congress should consider expanding the FCC’s authority to regulate offensive content.

The definition of indecency, profanity and obscenity “can be as large or as limited as we want to make it, and I think the FCC is very limited,” she said.

Mr. Martin said one way that consumers could control content would be by being able to choose the programs they receive from cable operators in a menu fashion. But while the FCC has encouraged cable operators to offer programs in smaller bundles or some similar alternative, he said, it has not received a satisfactory response from them.

“I think one of the most important things is allowing consumers to purchase programs on a channel-by-channel basis,” Mr. Martin said. “It’s going to require some kind of change in federal law to allow for some type of smaller packages.”

Cable operators have said the dramatic increase in prices in recent years is largely because of an increased number of programs. Allowing customers to pick and choose programs could mean a sharp decline in cable rates, Mr. Martin said.

He also told lawmakers that children’s educational programming should be further defined.

The FCC requires that television stations carry at least three hours of such programming per week, and Univision Communications Inc. recently paid $24 million to resolve complaints that its children’s programming was too similar to adult soap operas.

Mr. Martin said the FCC usually defers to the taste judgment of broadcasters but that might not be enough. “This is something the commission should provide further guidance on,” he said.

He also said the FCC is reviewing Sirius Satellite Radio Inc.’s plan to buy XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. The merger, valued at $4.6 billion when it was announced, has been criticized by some lawmakers and consumer groups as anti-competitive.

The FCC is examining technical issues involved in the proposed deal, including whether subscribers’ existing radio equipment would continue to work. Mr. Martin also said it was not clear whether the deal would allow for expanded programming or whether consumers would lose channels currently in their packages.

The question of price also came up, given that the companies have argued the deal would cut prices for subscribers.

Sirius Chief Executive Officer Mel Karmazin told a Senate hearing yesterday that subscribers who want fewer channels than now offered will be able to select packages at lower prices.

Mr. Martin, however, said it is not clear whether the merger would result in a subscription price lower than the current price from a single provider or lower than the current combined price of both XM and Sirius.

“The commission needs to understand whether consumers will be in a better position or a worse position,” he said.

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