Bill Tightening Indecency Rules OKd

Rhett Pardon
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday approved a measure that would make it more expensive for broadcasters to air something indecent.

Passing unanimously, the bill raises fines and requires regulators to consider each indecent utterance a violation, which could sharply boost penalties.

The panel acted less than a week after another committee in the House raised the maximum fine for broadcast indecency to $500,000 in another bill that could see a vote in the full House later this week.

The Senate bill raises the current fine to $275,000 from $27,500 for the first violation. The fine would increase to $375,000 for the second violation and $500,000 for the third. The Senate measure would cap fines at $3 million for each 24-hour period.

“Americans, especially parents, are fed up with content producers and broadcasters who have for too long ignored regulations that are designed to keep a standard of decency and protect children on the public’s airwaves,” Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a sponsor of the bill, told Reuters.

Amid the widening and increasingly politicized campaign to clean up the nation’s airwaves, more than 10 indecency cases are being finalized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), as reported on last week.

Howard Stern has been repeating for the last two weeks in his radio program that his days are over.

“As I predicted, the FCC will announce record fines against me,” said Stern, who was kicked off the airwaves in six cities by Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation’s largest radio broadcaster. “This show is over. Over. These are the last days.”

In 1995, Infinity Broadcasting Corp., which distributes Stern’s show, paid the FCC $1.7 million to settle a series of complaints the agency made about the program.

The new initiative to ding broadcasters with stiffer fines was ignited by this year’s Super Bowl broadcast in which entertainer Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed during the halftime show to the embarrassment of broadcaster CBS, a Viacom Inc. unit, its affiliates, and the FCC.

The indecency rules prohibit over-the-air radio and TV stations from airing material that refer to sexual and excretory functions, between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuned in.

In the Senate bill passed Tuesday, the panel rejected an amendment that would have applied broadcast-indecency rules to cable and satellite television, but it approved another amendment that would regulate violent programming on cable and satellite as well as free over-the-air television.

The FCC currently has no power to regulate cable and satellite, which are available to the 85 percent of the 108.4 million U.S. households with televisions.

The bill’s provision would require the FCC to study the so-called v-chip installed in newer televisions that can be programmed to screen out television shows rated as violent. If the study finds the v-chip isn’t effective, the FCC would then design rules that would limit distribution of violent programming during hours when children are likely to be watching. Only 7 percent of households currently use the v-chip, a report stated.

The amendment goes further. It would also make it a crime to distribute unrated violent programming that would escape detection by the v-chip. But news and sports programs, as well as premium and pay-per-view channels, would be exempt. The Federal Trade Commission would also be ordered to continue studying how the entertainment industry markets violent programs and games to children.

The panel approved another amendment to the bill that would put new FCC rules on deregulating ownership of media companies on hold, pending the outcome of a General Accounting Office report examining connections between media consolidation and violence. The rules, temporarily blocked by a federal appeals court, would make it easier for companies to own newspapers and broadcast stations in the same community.

In related news, Clear Channel said Tuesday it had bought equipment to provide for up to a 20-second delay for live broadcasts. The broadcaster earlier had announced it would pay a record $755,000 fine for broadcasts of “Bubba the Love Sponge,” which the FCC found indecent, and fired the disc jockey responsible.