WASHINGTON Faced with public ire over racy language, explicit scenes and skin-baring outfits, the Senate overwhelmingly agreed yesterday to fine radio and television broadcasters and personalities as much as $3 million a day for airing indecent entertainment.
After the uproar stoked by Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s “wardrobe malfunction” at this year’s Super Bowl, the Senate rushed the bill through on a 99-1 vote without floor debate.
GOP Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas said the issue had been debated enough. Lawmakers have continually criticized broadcasters for airing what they say is increasingly coarse programming that can be seen or heard by children.
“People are tired of this indecent material on over-the-air public broadcast, particularly during prime time when people’s families are watching,” said Brownback, the bill’s sponsor. “We’re going to have to take action because the broadcasters won’t police themselves.”
Under the measure, the maximum fine for both broadcasters and entertainers would increase to up to $275,000 per indecent incident, up from $27,500 for license holders and $11,000 for personalities. The fines would keep increasing for each incident until a maximum fine of $3 million a day is reached.
The House passed a similar bill that would set fines at $500,000. Differences between the two bills S. 2056 and H.R. 3717 must be worked out.
The Senate moved the measure without debate as part of the massive defense bill expected to be approved later this week. The only senator to vote against the measure was Sen. John Breaux, D-La.
Breaux said he opposed the bill partly because “it deals with communications and media issues and should not have been attached to a national security and defense bill.”
Federal law and FCC rules prohibit over-the-air radio and television stations from airing offensive material that refers to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., hours when children are more likely to be tuned in. No such restrictions exist for cable and satellite TV or satellite radio.
The FCC currently has no power to regulate those channels, which are available through subscription to the 85% of the 108.4 million U.S. households with televisions.
Introduced in January, after FCC Chairman Michael Powell demanded higher fines, the bill wound up on a fast track to passage after the Feb. 1 Super Bowl halftime show that ended with Timberlake partially exposing Jackson’s breast for an instant to 90 million viewers.
The incident generated more than 500,000 complaints to the FCC.
If the legislation isn’t approved as part of the bill to authorize spending for the Defense Department, Brownback said he would try to find another way to get it through the Senate. “This is something the public wants,” he said.
The Senate also approved a provision that would delay for one year the FCC’s media-ownership rules that allow, among other things, companies to own both newspapers and broadcasting stations in the same market.
Breaux said that measure also made him oppose the bill. “It repeals the FCC’s media-ownership rules using what I have argued is a flawed and inaccurate measurement of network television viewers,” he said.
But a consumer group cheered the move to delay the rules.
“Once again the Senate has demonstrated its objection to weakening rules that keep massive media conglomerates from swallowing up local media outlets and ignoring community values,” said Gene Kimmelman, senior public policy director of Consumer Reports.
Brownback said he wasn’t sure that those provisions would make it into the final legislation that emerges from the Senate-House conference committee.