The Senate late Thursday approved boosting fines tenfold to $325,000 on television and radio broadcast stations that violate rules on airing profanity or sexually explicit material.
The measure had languished for almost 16 months, drawing criticism from family groups and conservatives including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a likely 2008 contender for the Republican presidential nomination.
Lawmakers demanded higher fines on broadcasters after pop singer Janet Jackson briefly exposed her breast during the 2004 Super Bowl football halftime show broadcast on national television.
“Radio and television waves are public property and the companies who profit from using the public airwaves should face meaningful fines for broadcasting indecent material,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and author of the bill.
The Federal Communications Commission is the agency responsible for reviewing indecency complaints and the current maximum fine that can be imposed is $32,500 per violation.
The U.S. House of Representatives more than a year ago passed a bill that would hike fines to as much as $500,000 per violation and require the FCC to consider revoking a station’s license after three indecency violations.
House and Senate negotiators will have to work out their differences before any increase can become law.
Federal regulations bar broadcast television and radio stations from airing obscene material and restrict indecent material — like sexually explicit discussions or profanity — to late-night hours when children are less likely to be watching or listening.
Those limits do not apply to satellite or cable services.
The FCC fined 20 CBS Corp. television stations $550,000 for the Jackson incident. CBS apologized, but some have argued that the current fines are an insufficient deterrent to broadcasters that earn billions of dollars in revenue annually.
CBS has challenged the fine.