Lawmakers last night derailed legislation that would have substantially increased the amount the Federal Communications Commission can fine broadcasters for airing indecent material, giving media companies at least a temporary reprieve after months of scrutiny and public outrage.
A partisan struggle removed language from a bill that would have allowed the FCC to raise fines from the current $32,500 to as much as $275,000 for each incident of indecent content aired, confirmed Brian Hart, spokesman for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who sponsored legislation to increase the fines.
The legislative action comes two weeks after the FCC proposed fining CBS television stations a record-breaking $550,000 for singer Janet Jackson's breast-baring incident during the Super Bowl halftime show.
The FCC had asked Congress to give it the authority to raise its fines, following a steady increase in public and lawmaker complaints over objectionable material on radio and television programs, peaking with the Super Bowl incident.
Both houses voted earlier this year to allow the FCC to raise the fines. The Senate's version was attached to the Defense Department authorization bill. But it also included an amendment sponsored by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) that would have blocked the FCC's controversial new media ownership rules, which he believes would allow media companies to grow too big.
Republican conferees favored the ownership rules -- approved by the FCC in June 2003 but since returned by a federal court -- and were unwilling to send legislation with Dorgan's language to President Bush. The conferees stripped out all media language from the defense bill, likely killing any hope for a hike in fines this session.
Also removed last night was an amendment from Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) that would have required the FCC to study whether the V-chip and television ratings protect children from violent content on television. If it found they do not, the FCC would have to create a "safe harbor" viewing period to prohibit violent content on television when children are likely to be watching.
Hart said Brownback will seek to revive the indecency-fines legislation in another form as quickly as possible. However, Congress is expected to adjourn today for the election campaign.
Dorgan co-sponsored Brownback's bill to raise the indecency fines, but his unwillingness to drop his own amendment was blamed last night for helping to stymie legislation that would have allowed higher fines.
"I didn't kill it," Dorgan said last night in an interview. "I regret that they knocked all three [amendments] off. I think they made a mistake."