Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) Tuesday signaled that he's ready to bring to the Senate floor a fine-laden House-passed bill on broadcast indecency, a Senate source 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.
Broadcast indecency landed on the congressional agenda after singer Janet Jackson's breast exposure during the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl -- a program produced by MTV and aired on CBS that caused the Federal Communications Commission to fine 20 CBS-owned stations $550,000 combined.
Senate Commerce Committee Republican staff learned 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.
Nevertheless, a Senate Republican staff source 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 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 announced.
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.
“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.
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.
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."