News

Senate OKs TV-Violence Limits

6/27/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

He may be just a few months shy of retirement, but a still-frisky 82-year-old Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) intends to stalk the cable industry to the bitter end.

In a surprise move, the Senate last Tuesday unanimously adopted Hollings's TV-violence bill, which could prevent cable operators from airing violent programming at times when large numbers of children are expected be in the viewing audience.

Under current FCC rules, that period extends from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., or for two-thirds of the broadcast day.

V-CHIP SLIGHTED

Hollings, who is not standing for reelection in November after a 38-year Senate career, has complained that violent TV programs make children more aggressive and violent in later life and promote the idea that violent acts are acceptable. He has also argued that channel-blocking technologies, such as the V-chip, haven't worked.

“The Congress has made it clear we want to address violence on TV,” Hollings said in a statement after the vote. “For years, we've accumulated studies showing the link between violent TV programming and violent, anti-social behavior in children. Now, we have a chance to do something about it.”

Hollings has been pushing his bill for a long time, but his success was limited to four favorable votes in the Commerce Committee over 10 years.

But this year could be different. Hollings is looking for a last hurrah, perhaps exploiting the negative political climate toward the media that engulfed Capitol Hill after Janet Jackson's breast exposure during the Super Bowl halftime show, aired nationally by CBS.

The cable industry has opposed Hollings's bill, pointing out that unlike broadcasting, cable is purchased by subscribers who have access to blocking services provided by the cable company without charge. The industry has also argued that restricting violent programming to the so-called safe harbor period (from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) would not survive judicial review.

“We believe the 'safe harbor' amendment as approved today by the Senate raises serious constitutional questions, and we oppose this amendment,” said Brian Dietz, a spokesman of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. “From a First Amendment standpoint, we continue to believe that there are less-intrusive means to accomplish the objectives sought by this amendment.”

CABLE NOT ALONE

Hollings didn't single out cable. His violence proscriptions would apply equally to TV stations and direct-broadcast satellite providers Dish Network and DirecTV Inc. TV stations could have their licenses revoked for repeatedly violating FCC rules.

In a statement objecting to the Hollings amendment, National Association of Broadcasters president Edward Fritts said “most Americans would acknowledge that broadcast programming is considerably less explicit in terms of violence and sexual content than that which is routinely found on cable and satellite channels.”

Hollings's bill was attached as an amendment to the Defense Department's spending authorization bill, which President Bush is unlikely to veto.

But the TV-violence provisions could be stripped when House and Senate leaders meet to craft a final bill for Bush's signature.

In related moves, the Senate voted 99-1 for a bill sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) that would raise FCC broadcast indecency fines from $32,500 per offense to $325,000, with a per-day cap of $3 million.

Conservative and family organizations hailed the sharp increase in indecency fines.

“We can't nickel and dime mega-corporations and expect them to enforce decency regulations on public airwaves,” said Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America. “These new fines will actually impact their bottom line and make them sit up and listen to the American people's concern to clean up the public airwaves.”

The CWA is backing legislation that would require cable companies to sell programming a la carte, claiming such a law would allow parents to block indecent programming without having to pay for it.

In March, the House passed a bill 391-22 that would raise the per-violation maximum to $500,000.

In yet another move, the Senate unanimously adopted an amendment sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) that would overturn new media-ownership rules approved by the FCC last June.

But Dorgan's amendment preserved the law passed last November that capped a TV station group's TV household reach at 39%.

FCC HAS KEY RULE

In his bill, Hollings would put the burden on the FCC to conduct a rulemaking and decide whether to impose the violent programming restrictions on cable and satellite operators based on the view that blocking technology was failing to shield children from “excessive or gratuitous” TV violence.

Until that rulemaking, the FCC would be required to craft rules banning at any time the distribution of violent programming that is not blockable with the V-chip in TV sets. Hollings said the ban would give TV networks and distributors the incentive to apply a “V” for violence rating where appropriate.

Cable operators that violated the FCC's violent-programming rules could face the same new fines for broadcast indecency that are in the House and Brownback bills.

Hollings wouldn't hand the FCC a blank check.

Premium and pay-per-view cable programming would be exempt, and the FCC would have the discretion to exempt news programs and sporting events.

Hollings's Harbor
Purpose of bill (S. 161) is to protect children from viewing violent video programming that can lead to violent behavior later on.
It requires the FCC to ban violent video programming on cable that has not been rated V for violence and can't be blocked by the V-chip.
It requires the FCC to ban violent video programming on cable from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. if it finds that the rating system and the V-chip fail to shield children from violent programming.
It sets possible per-day fines of $3 million for violating FCC violence rules.
It exempts premium and pay-per-view cable programming from FCC rules.