Senate Slams Indecency, Dereg

The Senate Tuesday approved a raft of indecency-related amendments to a DoD appropriations bill, including one that, if it survived (unlikely) would invalidate the FCC’s June 2 media ownership reg rewrite.

Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), whose original Senate bill toughening indecency fines had been loaded down with poison pill add-ons and now virtually left for dead, was trying to introduce an amendment to the appropriations bill that would have simply raised the FCC fines.

That amendment, plus one from Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) making those fines proportionate to market size/ability to pay passed 99 to 1 (Louisiana Democrat John Breaux was the only hold-out). Breaux says he opposes the amendment because it had nothing to do with a national security and defense authorization bill and because it “repeals media ownership rules using a flawed and inaccurate measurement of viewers.”

That vote allowed the legislators (except Breaux) to be on the record against indecency, while not having to be on the record for a crackdown on violence and media concentration.
Following that roll-call vote, amendments dealing with those more problematic issues were approved by voice vote, turning the clean amendment into a copy of the stalled bill.

Those additions included an amendment from Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) that would permanently throw out the FCC's June 2 ownership revamp and an amendment from Senator Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) creating a violence safe harbor.

Dorgan's amendment as initially crafted would have called for a stay of the FCC rules until a GAO study on concentration could be completed. The Senate Parliamentarian had problem's with the GAO study request, so Dorgan recrafted it to essentially say "the connection between concentration and indecency is a given, here's what we should to about it."

The House version of the DOD bill has no indecency provisions. In the conference to reconcile the bills, the entire amendment could be dropped or pared back to Brownback's original again. Another possibility is that the House version of the indecency bill could be substituted for the Brownback amendment.

If so, it would mean not only increased fines, but a three strikes you’re out provision putting station licenses at risk for multiple offenses and a provision making artists expressly liable and removing the first warning now required before the FCC fines an artist (which it has never done).

In the meantime, Senator Dorgan labeled it a big victory for those who want to limit ownership. Josh Silver, Managing Director of Free Press agreed, saying: "This victory is an important wake-up call to politicians who have been blocking the will of the public to have a diverse, fair, and representative media system. “

Others were calling it a boat now too loaded down to float. The President has already threatened to veto an indecency bill that contains a media ownership rollback and the House isn’t expected to let it get to his desk with either that or the violence harbor.

NAB was quick to express its displeasure, while taking a swipe at the competition: "NAB does not support the amendment passed today by the Senate,” it said in a statement. “We continue to believe that voluntary industry initiatives that have been taken by a number of broadcasters thus far are far preferable to government regulation when dealing with programming issues. We also believe that most Americans would acknowledge that broadcast programming is considerably less explicit in terms of violence and sexual content than that which is routinely found on cable and satellite channels."

Representative Fred Upton, chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee and one of the prime movers behind the House indecency bill, called it “one step closer to getting the filth and triple-x smut off the public airwaves.”

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.