Washington Watch

Indecency Fines Jump

After more than two years of debate, hearings and failed attempts, Congress last week boosted FCC indecency and profanity fines by a factor of 10, with only the president's promised signature standing between media companies and real money for the next errant f-word or blouse cut too low.

Starting from whenever President Bush signs the bill—within the next two weeks—any of those slips run the risk of multimillion-dollar fines. One episode of Without a Trace, for example, would have cost CBS stations more than $30 million had it been under the new regime.

The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 passed 379-35, with only one Republican among the dissenters: Ron Paul, a libertarian Texan who once ran for president on a platform of personal liberty.

The bill was championed by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), an intensely religious man who also has his eye on the White House. It simply boosts the FCC's maximum indecency fines to $325,000 per utterance, to a maximum $3 million per incident. It does not raise fines on performers nor require the FCC to hold a hearing on an owner's fitness to hold its license after three indecency violations. It also doesn't up the fines to $500,000 per pop. All of those were in a version of the bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), that passed the House last year but stalled because they contained those provisions.

“This sends a clear signal to the networks,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told reporters and banks of news cameras last week. “If you peddle trash to the kids, you're going to pay the price.”

Now that Congress has raised the broadcast fines on indecency and profanity 10-fold, it will start to work on a better definition of what that offensive content is, which may mean more indecency hearings. At a signing ceremony for the fine-boosting bill, Upton said he is “likely to have a working meeting with the FCC and a number of [his] colleagues who would like to see that pursued so that broadcasters know where the line is.”

The Brownback bill does not address violence, media concentration, or pay media like cable and satellite. All those issues were at one time on the table and in various proposed bills in the aftermath of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl Reveal. But all proved to be poison pills and were ultimately jettisoned for essentially the least that lawmakers could do. And clearly, the legislators wanted to do something before returning to their home districts to try to get reelected.

The genesis of the bill actually predated Jackson, as Upton pointed out last week, and stemmed in part from Upton's reading of the text of some indecency complaints, notably Opie & Anthony's “Sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral” stunt that got the pair fired and parent Viacom slapped with a proposed $357,000 fine; Viacom ultimately settled that and other fines in 2004 in a $3.5 million deal with the FCC to wipe the slate clean.

The FCC is under no obligation to levy its maximum fine, although it did so in numerous instances in its March release of a dozen or so proposed fines against TV stations, more such fines than in all the previous years of FCC indecency enforcement combined.

And FCC Chairman Kevin Martin last week suggested that he is happy to have the bigger stick of larger fines. “I welcome Congress' decision to give the commission increased fining authority in our efforts to protect children from inappropriate programming,” he said.

The president was also pleased. “This legislation will make television and radio more family-friendly by allowing the FCC to impose stiffer fines on broadcasters who air obscene or indecent programming,” he said of the bill's passage. “I look forward to signing this important legislation into law.”

The commission is still working on a package of radio-related indecency-fine proposals, but they won't get the “more meaningful” fines since the complaints came before the fines were boosted.

Clinton: Study of TV's Effect on Kids Needed

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) pushed for her bill to fund a National Institutes of Health study of the media's effect on kids, saying the country is currently conducting a social experiment in TV as surrogate parent.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says the biggest issue related to kids and TV content is media ownership and that he will push for a study of the relationship between media consolidation and family-friendly programming when the FCC launches its review of its remanded media-ownership rules.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is confident that a new $300 million, industry-backed parental-control education campaign will help convince those parents that they, not government, have the power to control content into the home.

Must-Carry Power Grab?

Just two weeks ago, broadcasters were cautiously ecstatic about prospects for securing a government mandate that cable carry all their free, digital multicast signals (multicast must-carry).

The FCC had twice ruled that digital must-carry applied only to a single digital replication of the primary signal. But Chairman Martin dissented from that conclusion and, with a third Republican commissioner installed, let it be known he wants to reverse the decision. It's slated for the FCC's June 21 meeting.

Some in Congress see that as a power grab, and last week, the issue turned into a turf fight between the powerful chairman of the FCC and the powerful chairmen of the House and Senate Committees that oversee the commission.

Calling it a “regulatory fiat” that would “usurp Congressional authority,” House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chair­man Upton are allied with Stevens in opposing Martin's effort to secure multi­cast must-carry for broadcasters.

“If Congress had intended to require carriage of multiple streams,” they argued in a letter to Martin, “it would have done so, either in the original must-carry provisions or the digital television provisions of the Deficit Reduction Act.”

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.