FCC Indecency-Fine Boost Passes

By an overwhelming margin, 379 to 35, the House Wednesday passed a bill (S. 193) upping the FCC's maximum indecency fine to $325,000 per violation, a tenfold increase over the current top fine.

Republicans were almost unanimously in favor, with 219 voting for the bill and only a single Republican voting no. That was Ron Paul of Texas, the former Libertarian party candidate for president who ran on among other issues, personal liberty.

The Democrats were only slightly more split, with 160 voting for the bill and 33 against. At least one of those, Diane Watson of California, opposed the bill because it was too weak.

Eighteen members did not vote one way or the other.

The bill was sponsored by Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and fast-tracked through the Senate. With House approval of the identical bill, it can now go to the president for his signature.
The Senate approved the bill unanimously last month through a mechanism called "unanimous consent" that allowed it to pass so long as no one objected. A single objection would have derailed the fast-track effort.

The responses to passage flooded in. Brownback said: “This is a victory for children and families,” said Brownback.  “After two years Congress is sending a bill to the president that will raise broadcast indecency fines to a meaningful level. Raising the fines for abusing the public airwaves will hold broadcasters accountable for the content and consequences of their media.”
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who gets to help decide when and how much to fine, was happy to have the bigger stick: "I welcome Congress' decision to give the Commission increased fining authority in our efforts to protect children from inappropriate programming," he said.
"Many parents are increasingly concerned about what is on television and radio today.  Today's vote demonstrates that Congress shares their concern and has a clear desire for a more meaningful enforcement of our decency standard.

"The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act gives the Commission more tools to enable parents to watch television and listen to radio as a family.  In addition, I believe that concerns regarding content should be addressed in a comprehensive fashion by empowering parents to choose the programming that comes into their homes." On that topic, Martin also issued a statement praising Arizona Republican Senator John McCain's bill offering franchise relief for cable operators who offer a la carte service.

Republican FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate praised the bill, but also invoked a la carte, as she had earlier in the day in a forum on content-blocking technologies. "It will take more than cleaning up indecency to make television and radio a positive force in our children's lives," she said.

"We need to also give parents more choice in the channels sent into their homes, find ways to make our children more media literate, and promote the production of more positive, educational, and inspirational children's programming."

House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) praised passage as well: "It is time that we reclaim America's airwaves for decency, and this bill is a firm message that we have had enough," he said.

Consideration of a bill hiking FCC indecency fines predates the Janet Jackson Super Bowl reveal in February 2004, and has some of its genesis in the Opie & Anthony "Sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral" stunt on WNEW(AM), for which the FCC proposed a $357,000 fine, though Viacom ultimately settled that and other fines in a 2004, $3.5 million settlement.

But Jackson was the momentum behind Senate hearings on indecency, industry self-regulation in response to those hearings, and a House bill that passed with stronger provisions than Brownback's bill, including upping the fines on performers and bringing a station license into play after numerous indecency violations.

Those provisions were opposed by performer unions and broadcasters. With those absent from the Senate bill, that one proved the vehicle for some action on indecency before legislators have to return to try to get reelected.

The bill will become law when the president signs, likely within the next couple of weeks.

Parents Televison Council , which has filed a large number of the indecency complaints against radio and TV, was understandably pleased by the bigger bucks that could now be extracted: "The networks must have a significant financial penalty for violating the indecency law and the public trust," said PTC President Brent Bozell."We certainly hope that this legislation will provide such a deterrent, and that President Bush will quickly sign this bill into law as he has promised.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.