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Indecency Fine Back on Track

It looks as though broadcasters and performers will face a potential $500,000 maximum fine for indecency, according to a compromise indecency amendment presented to House and Senate conferees Tuesday.

The handful of legislators crafting a compromise to an indecency enforcement amendment on a Department of Defense spending authorization bill think they have one, according to a staffer. Now it just has to pass muster with the rest of the conferees to make it onto a bill that is on the fast track for passsage.

According to a compromise struck by Senators Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), FCC indecency fines will be boosted to a maximum $500,000 per violation and $3 million per 24-hour period. A last-minute casualty, at the request of Ensign, was the "three strikes" rule that would have automatically put a license renewal in jeopardy for three indecency offenses.

Ensign had last week asked that the entire amendment be struck, fearing there were too many deal breakers that would hold up the main defense spending authorization. As expected, gone, too, are provisions relating to media ownership, violence safe harbors and cable indecency that would have blocked passage.

The amendment includes a shot clock, which gives the FCC a deadline for when it must issue a notice of apparent liability and fines. One source said it was 9 months for each, though that seems long. Both activist groups and commission Democrats have complained about the pace of FCC indecency complaint investigations.

The compromise does include $500,000 and $3 million fines for performers. It is unclear whether the FCC must first issue a warning to performers, as is the case with the current performer fine.

The American Federation of Radio & Television Artists is troubled by the performer fines. "It's really unconscionable to fine individuals who don't make a lot of money up to a half-million dollars for programming decisions their employers make," says Tom Carpenter, national director of news and broadcast.

Carpenter says the broadcast steering committee of the union met last weekend and agreed that fighting the performer fines is a priority. That could include taking them to court if the amendment passes. But Carpenter points out that the FCC has never fined performers, though it has always had the ability, and that AFTRA would wait to see whether the FCC would break with that tradition.

In the meantime, AFTRA has been fighting against current clauses in some talent contracts that make the performers liable for fines levied against the licensee. If those remain and the FCC began targeting performers, talent could conceivable take a double hit, having to pay for their own fines as well as their station's.

The compromise still has to be approved by all the conferees, the entire bill approved by the House and Senate and signed by the President.

But the bill is on a fast track and is expected to be approved by the time the current session ends--Oct. 8, or as close as they can make it--because nobody wants to go home and face their constituents without having authorized spending for the military and homeland defense.