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Senate OKs higher fines for indecency

By The Associated Press
06.23.04

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.


Update
Move to raise indecency fines fails
Measure scuttled after House, Senate negotiators can't agree on plans to block media-ownership rules, require FCC to study V-chip, TV ratings. 10.11.04

Previous
House votes to raise fines for indecent programming
ACLU criticizes move, saying that freedom of speech could be impinged as broadcasters try to follow vague definition of what is indecent. 03.12.04

Related

Congress approves new media-ownership cap

Measure, included in larger spending bill, will allow companies to own TV stations that reach 39% of viewing public, also will take power to change limit away from FCC. 01.23.04

FCC head opposes strict sanctions for indecency violators
'I don't think you should reduce something as facile and vague as indecency to clear cause-and-effect consequences,' Michael Powell tells broadcasters conference. 04.21.04

Clear Channel to pay record $1.75 million to settle indecency claims
Nation's largest radio chain 'has now formally admitted that it violated the law and has made binding commitments to clean up its act,' says FCC chairman. 06.10.04

3rd Circuit throws out media-ownership rules
But panel finds FCC was within its rights to repeal blanket prohibition on companies owning both a newspaper, TV station in same city. 06.25.04

Broadcasters may have to keep recordings of programs
FCC is considering proposal that would require TV, radio stations to retain recordings for up to three months to aid in investigations of indecency complaints. 07.08.04

CBS would fight any Super Bowl fines
Top parent-company executive says penalty for Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake performance would be 'grossly unfair.' 07.19.04

A closer look at broadcast indecency
Examining what it is, what government regulators, broadcasters are doing about it. 03.23.04

A government thumb on the remote control
By Paul K. McMasters Do you really want the feds telling you what you can and cannot hear or watch on the airwaves? 08.29.04

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