House Committee Endorses Half-Million Dollar Fines for Indecency

Legislation to raise fines on television and radio broadcasters and individuals for violating decency limits to as much as $500,000 per incident won approval on Wednesday by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The bill, approved by a vote of 46-2, would also require the Federal Communications Commission to consider revoking a station’s license if it violated indecency rules three times. The fine increase would be more than 15 times the current maximum of $32,500 per violation.

Other provisions would require the FCC to act on complaints within six months, consider violations when stations want to renew or modify their licenses and give the agency the power to require violators to run public service announcements.

“Clearly the FCC’s enforcement tools could use some sharpening,” said Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the committee and a Texas Republican. “I plan to do all I can to get this bill enacted into law.”

The bill now goes to the House floor. The committee turned aside an attempt by one lawmaker to shield individual performers from fines.

Lawmakers in the Senate have proposed their own measure, which would raise fines to as much as $325,000 for each incident and calls for a $3 million maximum for a continuing violation. It does not have the “three-strikes” provision.

The two sides would have to work out any differences before a bill could be forwarded to President Bush for his review. Congress failed to reach a compromise last year on similar legislation.

After several high-profile events last year, including a brief glimpse of Janet Jackson’s exposed breast during the halftime show at the 2004 Super Bowl football game, some lawmakers, parents groups and regulators have been pressing for higher fines to serve as a deterrent.

“I’m going to vote against (the bill), I don’t like censorship,” Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said during debate before the vote. “I don’t like the impact of it, self-censorship.”

The prospect of higher fines and an FCC crackdown has led some broadcasters to dump or tone down shows to avoid the chance of an FCC probe. This year’s Super Bowl halftime show was much tamer, although there appeared to be a desire by some to view more tantalizing material.

A Super Bowl advertisement showing a buxom woman having a strap on her blouse come undone while she was testifying before a fake congressional panel on decency was the most replayed commercial by subscribers to digital video recorder service TiVo Inc. But the woman in the ad managed to keep her top from tumbling and she remained covered.

“This is incredibly enormous pressure and it is going to have a fairly substantial chilling effect,” said David Poltrack, executive vice president of research and planning at Viacom Inc.’s CBS network. Twenty CBS stations are facing fines totaling $550,000 for the Jackson incident.

“We are going to continue with business as usual, but clearly there are substantial numbers of people in power who want television programming to change,” he said at McGraw- Hill’s media summit in New York.

Broadcasters are barred from airing indecent material, typically of a sexual or profane nature, except during late- night hours when children are less likely to be in the audience. The limits do not apply to cable and satellite television and radio services.

After receiving more than 1 million complaints last year about 314 programs — half of which were about the Super Bowl snafu — the FCC proposed fines and obtained consent decrees against stations totaling almost $8 million.