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Hill Bill Targets Violence

A pair of senators beat Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens to the punch on cable and satellite indecency.

Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) have introduced a bill that would bring cable and satellite under the FCC's indecency enforcement regime and, as an added bonus, would include violence in the definition of indecency for the first time.

Having concluded that there is a compelling government interest in regulating violent speech, the pair want the FCC to extend the 6 a.m.-10 p.m. broadcast indecency ban to cover gratuitous violence as well, and to "adopt measures"--it did not specify--to shield children from indecent content on basic cable and satellite if the commission determines that current blocking technology is not effective. 

The bill would also give the FCC the flexibility to exempt pay services, like HBO.

Congress is still awaiting a report from the FCC on TV violence that was opened last July.

Stevens over the past several weeks has expressed a keen interest in regulating indecency on cable and satellite, and had been expected to introduce a bill or amendment to that extent, though last week he seemed to back off the rhetoric somewhat.

But wait, there's more. The Rockefeller-Hutchison bill would also boost fines for indecency, double the number of required hours of educational children's programming per week from three to six (we're not sure how that fits into the indecency equation), and require 30-second, on-screen warnings every 30 minutes during violent of indecent programming.

The expanded hours of family friendly shows and increased on-screen warnings are not hooked to an FCC finding on blocking technology and are likely the tail that wags this bill.

It is not clear how far such a bill will get given the strong First Amendment hurdle of trying to regulate a TV service that customers must buy, and one that the Supreme Court has protected so long as viewers have the ability to block objectionable programming.

The addition of violence provisions, among others, helped kill a bill in the last Congress that would have raised the FCC's indecency fines.

But if the bill does get anywhere, here is where it wants to get:

1) Seeks to combat violence on broadcast TV by, for the first time, giving the FCC the power to regulate it.

2) Gives the FCC, for the first time, the power to regulate indecency (and violence) on cable and Satellite

3) Requires the FCC to conduct a 60-day review of the V-Chip and other blocking technologies, then identify a more effective means of protecting children from indecency and gratuitous violence.

4)  Mandates more thorough labeling of violent and indecent programming, including a full-screen, 30-second, warning every 30 minutes on broadcast, cable, and satellite programs.

5) Doubles the FCC quota of educational kids programming from 3 hours to 6 hours per week. 

6) Increases maximum fines from $27,500 to $500,000 (though, actually, the maximum is now $32,500, not $27,500, after a built-in inflation bump last September).

The bill also says it would give the FCC the power to double the fine for egregious violations, though it is unclear how that would work. If a maximum $500,000 fine can be doubled, the maximum is actually $1 million, and if it instead means that any fine whose doubling would come under the $500,000 cap could be doubled, well, the FCC would already have the latitude to fine it that amount anyway.

7) Like the House bill raising indecency fines that is awaiting a Senate vote (or substitution or amendment), in this bill, local broadcasters' ability to preempt the programming in question would affect their liability for fines.

8) The FCC would be required to assess and report to Congress on the effectiveness of current TV ratings/guidelines, and the feasibility of applying more rigorous ratings proposed by advocacy organizations.

9) Broadcasters would be encouraged--a nonbinding sense of the Senate resolution--to reinstate the NAB's TV code of conduct.

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.