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Anti-Indecency Forces Opposed

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 26, 2005; Page D12

The push to crack down harder on radio and television indecency, which rose to national attention with Janet Jackson's brief exposure during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, is beginning to stir pockets of opposition.

Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) has introduced a bill that would prevent the Federal Communications Commission, which polices over-the-air radio and television broadcasts, from extending its authority to cable and satellite channels.

Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) (Alden Pellett -- AP)

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At the same time, a California woman has launched a Web site, www.speakspeak.org, meant to counter what she calls the excessive influence of anti-indecency groups, such as the Parents Television Council (PTC), that flood the government with complaints designed to spur fines against radio and television broadcasters.

Sanders said his bill is meant to head off possible legislation discussed by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) that would give the FCC the power to fine channels such as HBO and companies such as XM Satellite Radio Inc. if they air offensive content.

"It's a very dangerous trend," Sanders said in an interview yesterday. "I've talked to people in the industry and they say it means programs like 'The Sopranos' and 'Sex and the City' and similar-type programs will either be rewritten or taken off the air or pushed into late night."

Stevens is honeymooning and unavailable for comment. He plans to address cable executives at the industry's annual trade show in San Francisco early next month, according to Commerce Committee spokeswoman Melanie Alvord. He is hoping the threat of legislation will persuade cable providers to give viewers the option of not subscribing to channels they deem offensive. Companies might do this by offering a greater variety of subscription packages or by setting up an a la carte system that allows people to pay for only the channels they want to watch.

The cable industry has resisted such changes, saying customers easily can block unwanted channels from appearing in the home.

Sanders argued against Rep. Fred Upton's (R-Mich.) bill to raise the maximum FCC indecency fine on broadcasters from $32,500 to $500,000, which passed 389 to 38 last month, saying such a measure would further chill free speech. The bill also would allow the FCC to fine entertainers up to $500,000 for intentionally performing indecent material and require the FCC to act on complaints within 180 days of their filing.

A similar bill was introduced in the Senate in January by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) that would raise the maximum indecency fine to $325,000. Sponsors in both houses say indecency fines need to be raised as an effective deterrent. Existing fine amounts, lawmakers and FCC commissioners say, are easily paid by the nation's multibillion-dollar entertainment giants.

Amanda Toering, an editor at the University of California at Davis and former researcher in the Texas legislature, said she was incensed in November when she read that several ABC affiliate stations were dropping plans to air a Veterans Day broadcast of "Saving Private Ryan," worried that the film's graphic violence and profanity would bring an FCC fine. (The FCC later said the broadcast would not have violated indecency regulations.)

After researching the escalating indecency debate, Toering decided that the Parents Television Council was dominating the conversation. She said the FCC needs to know that many Americans do not agree with the PTC's indecency complaints, which have targeted shows such as NBC's "Friends," Fox's "King of the Hill" and ABC's "NYPD Blue."

Her site went up in January, and its first major action came a month later, following a PTC complaint to the FCC about an episode of the often-graphic CBS crime drama "CSI." SpeakSpeak countered the PTC's objections to the episode, arguing why the show was not indecent. PTC sent in about 12,000 complaints; SpeakSpeak generated about 1,000, Toering said in an interview yesterday.

"Our mission is to help the FCC interpret the contemporary community standards that factor in their decisions" on indecency complaints, Toering said. "Until us, the only community they heard from was the PTC."

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