TV and radio stations could pay much larger fines -- up to $500,000 per violation -- for airing indecent programming under legislation overwhelmingly approved Wednesday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
While the bill (H.R. 310) targets broadcasters, some lawmakers felt that it was only fair to expose cable TV, satellite television and satellite radio to indecency regulation.
"There will be a group of us that will continue to push for that," Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said.
Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) said that although he understood that cable's First Amendment protections were stronger than broadcast's with regard to indecency regulation, cable content was running so wild that regulation was needed.
"There is a considerable amount of filth, really, being aired on our televisions by some in the cable industry," Pitts said. "The problem is getting bad enough that something needs to be done."
If cable were covered, indecent content (generally meaning sex, nudity and foul language) would be banned from 6 a.m.-10 p.m., seven days per week.
The Federal Communications Commission may currently fine a broadcaster up to $32,500 per offense, but Capitol Hill lawmakers consider that amount too puny to matter to media giants like Viacom Inc., which is fighting the $550,000 fine levied against 20 of its CBS stations for airing Janet Jackson's Super Bowl breast exposure last February.
"Clearly, the FCC's enforcement tools could use some sharpening, and that's precisely what [the bill] does," committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said.
Under the House bill, Viacom would be facing a $10 million penalty for the Janet Jackson episode.
The panel passed the bill 46-2. Similar legislation stalled last year in the waning moments of that biennial Congress.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who voted against the bill, said FCC indecency enforcement has had a "chilling impact" on broadcasters, noting that some stations feared airing Saving Private Ryan because they were uncertain whether strong language in the World War II film would trigger a fine.
"I don't know what the [indecency] standard means. I think it's vague," Waxman said.
Under the bill, the FCC can use indecency violations to deny a license renewal and launch a proceeding to revoke a broadcast license for multiple violations.
The bill also calls on broadcasters to restore the family hour in the evening.
Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) said cable could fend of indecency and a la carte regulation if it assembled a tier of family-friendly programming.
"If they would institute a family-friendly tier of a package that a family could purchase, rather than forcing them to buy things they don't want and that they find objectionable, I think that would be a significant step in the right direction," he added.
Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) said he opposed content regulation of cable.
"Parents assume greater responsibility for monitoring the cable broadcast they are paying for and have invited into their homes," Wynn said. "Therefore, I do not think this type of regulation would be appropriate for cable."