Fueled by public outrage over Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl halftime breast flash on live national television in 2004, the House passed and sent President Bush a bill Wednesday that would raise radio- and TV-indecency fines tenfold, from $32,500 to $325,000 per offense under a $3 million cap for any single act.
The House voted 379-35 to approve a bill (S. 173) that originated in the Senate and passed that body May 18 by unanimous consent.
“This is a victory for children and families,” Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), sponsor of the Senate bill, said after the House vote. “Raising the fines for abusing the public airwaves will hold broadcasters accountable for the content and consequences of their media.”
Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin welcomed the bill as a way to clean up the airwaves, but he repeated his interest in seeing that consumers gain access to programming from cable and satellite companies on an a la carte basis.
“I believe concerns regarding content should be addressed in a comprehensive fashion by empowering parents to choose the programming that comes into their homes,” Martin said.
The White House -- which typically enunciates its position on legislation through the Office of Management and Budget -- did not issue a statement of administration policy regarding the Brownback bill.
In February 2005, the House passed a more stringent bill, 389-38, but the Senate would not agree to it, preferring to focus on raising fines.
The House bill called for raising the maximum fine from $32,500 to $500,000 and for making it easier for the FCC to impose fines on shock jocks for willful violations. It also required the FCC to commence a license-revocation hearing after a licensee’s third indecency penalty within its eight-year license term.
The FCC bans indecent broadcasts from 6 a.m.-10 p.m. -- hours when children are expected to comprise a substantial portion of the audience.
The commission defines indecent as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.”
The bill going to the White House would not authorize the FCC to regulate indecent content carried by cable- and satellite-TV operators.
"In issues related to programming content, the NAB believes responsible self-regulation is preferable to government regulation. If there is regulation, it should be applied equally to cable and satellite TV and satellite radio,” National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said.
In recent years, indecency complaints have been mounting at the FCC. Jackson’s breast exposure, aired nationally by CBS, infuriated family and parental organizations and caused them to demand action. The agency fined CBS Corp.-owned stations $550,000.
“The FCC will now have the authority to impose meaningful, punitive fines when the indecency law is broken. We hope that the hefty fines will cause the multibillion-dollar broadcast networks finally to take the law seriously,” said L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council.