Washington— Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) last Tuesday signaled that he’s ready to bring to the Senate floor a fine-laden House-passed bill on broadcast indecency, a Senate official said.
The legislation, passed by the House last January on a 389-38 vote, would raise broadcast-indecency fines to $500,000 per offense, up from $32,500 currently. Television and radio stations with multiple violations could have their licenses revoked under the bill.
Broadcast indecency landed on the congressional agenda after singer Janet Jackson’s fleeting breast exposure during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. The show was program produced by MTV: Music Television and aired on CBS, causing the Federal Communications Commission to fine 20 CBS-owned stations $550,000 combined.
MIGHT FACE A HOLD
The Senate Commerce Committee’s Republican staff learned last Tuesday that Frist is seeking to clear the House bill for a Senate vote. Because at least one senator can postpone Senate action indefinitely, it is probable that a vote will not occur in the near future. A Senate aide confirmed that unnamed senators had immediately place holds on the bill.
Nevertheless, a Senate Republican staffer said Frist’s decision “is the first movement [on indecency] that we have seen in the Senate in a long, long time.”
In an e-mail sent late Tuesday to Republican staff members on the Senate Commerce Committee, committee staff director Lisa Sutherland alerted them to Frist’s plan.
“Guys — just wanted to give you a heads up that [Frist] will soon hotline the House decency bill which has been pending on the Senate calendar,” Sutherland wrote.
The Parents Television Coalition and the Christian Coalition of America have accused Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) of blocking a Senate vote on the House bill. Both groups support a federal crackdown on TV and radio stations through large fines and have been pressuring Frist and Stevens to break the Senate logjam.
“The Senate needs to pass this bill today. We’re calling on Sen. Stevens to be the leader who makes this happen by the end of the congressional year. By using his authority, he can go from zero to hero in a matter of minutes,” PTC president L. Brent Bozell said in a prepared statement Monday.
Last Thursday, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) called for passage of his bill, the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which would raise FCC fines to $325,000 per offense.
“In 2004, 90 of my current Senate colleagues voted in support of an amendment containing the exact same language contained in the Decency Act. In fact, the only 'no’ vote was cast by a Senator who is no longer serving,” Brownback said in a statement.
In recent months, Stevens has spearheaded an effort to promote a TV-industry-led effort to address the indecency issue. Major cable companies, for example, have agreed to launch family tiers designed to be free of indecent content. Cable and direct-broadcast satellite carriers have joined forces with TV networks and TV stations around the country to promote the use of channel-blocking equipment found in TV sets and digital set-top boxes.
FREE SPEECH ISSUE
Stevens has given the industry time to focus on indecency in part because he’s concerned that efforts to regulate pay TV providers for indecency would face First Amendment problems in court. The Supreme Court, for example, ruled in 2000 that Congress could not apply TV-indecency rules to pornographic channels on cable systems.
TV and radio organizations opposed the House bill, calling it punitive and unfair because it excludes cable and pay TV providers.
Under current law, the FCC may fine a TV or radio station that airs indecent programming between 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Cable, DBS and satellite radio-providers are exempt from FCC indecency regulation.
According to the FCC, “Material is indecent if, in context, it depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.”