Hill Pushes Martin on Indecency

Two lawmakers charged with overseeing the Federal Communications Commission's budget Tuesday called on chairman Kevin Martin to more aggressively press for voluntary TV-industry safeguards to protect children from inappropriate programming.

"It's got to be more than giving speeches," said Rep. Frank Wolf, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Science, State, Commerce, Justice and Related Agencies, the panel that governs FCC appropriations.

Martin pointed out that he has long been on record supporting a an hour nightly prime time broadcast block for family-friendly viewing (the so-called family hour) and has called on cable operators to sell family-themed tiers of programming. He promised to provide more leadership on the issue now that he is FCC chairman.

During a hearing on the FCC's 2006 spending plans, Wolf encouraged Martin to convene meetings with broadcasters and cable operators aimed at winning commitments from the industry that would allow parents to know specific timeslots (broaodcast) or programming packages (cable) that would be suitable for all members of their families.

The hearing was Martin's first Capitol Hill appearance since being named chairman in March.

Appropriations hearings are ostensibly for review of agency spending, but often lawmakers use them to weigh in on agency policies.

Wolf said he didn't understand why the industry hasn't followed Martin's lead already, given that legislation is pending to dramatically hike fines for broadcast indecency violations, and Congress is contemplating adding restrictions on pay-TV operators. "It would seem to me they would get the most benefit in a push for a voluntary code."

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., the subcommittee's ranking Democrat and a fierce opponent of tougher indecency sanctions, agreed that voluntary efforts are a better way to clean up the airwaves. "Isn't this the best way to go, rather than the government mandating and coming in?" he asked. "This should be the major thing you are pushing rather than massive fines."

Wolf also expressed doubt that Congress could meet the FCC's request for a nearly 8% increase in its 2006 budget from fiscal 2005.

Although the FCC obtains the overwhelming majority of its funds from regulatory fees it charges industry, the commission is asking Congress to add a direct appropriation of $4.8 million. The 2005 direct appropriation was $1 million.

Martin said a 3% increase in FCC budget is needed to keep operations at current levels. The extra money is needed for four new programs: switching FCC personnel information to an all-electronic format, upgrading its licensing prrocedure, rebuilding the agency field lab in Columbia, Md., and hiring 26 analysts to audit the Universal Service Fund, the tax telephone customers pay to subsidize wiring of low income and rural areas with phone service