Washington— People talk about lobbyists having too much clout on Capitol Hill. But it should be obvious by now that the Gucci class is no match for Janet Jackson.
Last Wednesday, a House committee, as one of its first acts of the new Congress, overwhelmingly passed a bill that called for a 15-fold increase in monetary penalties against TV and radio stations that air indecent programming.
Motivating the legislation is ongoing concern about out-of-control content on radio and TV, highlighted by singer Jackson’s fleeting breast exposure during last year’s Super Bowl halftime show, seen by millions of children.
NEW $500K MAX FINE
Today, the Federal Communications Commission is permitted to impose a maximum fine of $32,500 per violation, but the bill approved 46-2 by the Energy and Commerce Committee would set the new maximum at $500,000.
While the bill (H.R. 310) targets broadcasters, some lawmakers felt it was time to include cable TV, satellite television and satellite radio under the indecency rules and subject those media to the same fines.
“There will be a group of us that will continue to push for that,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.).
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. to 10 p.m., seven days per week.
Lawmakers increased the fine cap because they consider $32,500 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 Jackson’s exposure.
Under the House bill, Viacom would be facing a $10 million penalty for the Jackson incident.
“Clearly, the FCC’s enforcement tools could use some sharpening, and that’s precisely what [the bill] does,” said committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas).
Efforts last year to pass similar legislation — sparked by outrage over Jackson’s live stunt — stalled in the waning moments of the previous 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.
Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the other no vote, said the fines were too high and encroached on free-speech protections.
“While I don’t support the race to the bottom on the airwaves, I am more concerned about infringing on free speech than I am about seeing or my grandchildren seeing Janet Jackson’s nipples,” she said.
Under the bill, called the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, the FCC can use indecency violations to deny a license renewal and launch a proceeding to revoke a license after the third violation.
The bill would also raise from $11,000 to $500,000 the maximum fine against networks and entertainers that “willfully and intentionally” violate FCC rules. The FCC generally has 180 days to act on indecency complaints.
Some TV stations have complained that current law exposes them to indecency fines for recorded programming that they did not have a chance to review and for live events in which indecent content came as a surprise, such as Jackson’s breast exposure.
The bill would exempt stations from indecency fines if they “had no reasonable basis to believe the programming would contain obscene, indecent or profane material.”
FAMILY HOUR RERUN
The bill also calls on broadcasters to restore the family hour, starting at 8 p.m.
Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) said cable could fend off 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 regulation of cable content.
“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.”