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FCC Chief Hopes to Raise Cost of Airing Indecency

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2004

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell called on Congress yesterday to raise "by at least tenfold" the dollar amount of fines his agency can impose on radio and television broadcasters who have aired indecent material.

"Some of these fines are peanuts and they're peanuts because they haven't been touched in decades," said Powell, speaking at a National Press Club luncheon. "They're just the cost of doing business to a lot of producers and that has to change."

The chairman previously has called for higher fines for those who violate various FCC regulations, such as phone companies that switch customers' long-distance providers without informing them, but he had not placed a target on fines for indecency. Currently, the FCC can charge broadcasters a maximum of $27,500 for each indecency violation, a ceiling set by Congress.

Shortly after the speech, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce telecommunications and Internet subcommittee, said he plans to introduce a bill next week that would "substantially increase" the monetary fines the FCC could impose for violations of its indecency standards.

"As it currently stands, FCC fines are not much of a deterrent," Upton said in a statement. "Stiffer fines should get the attention of broadcasters nationwide. I am confident that when broadcasters take a bigger hit in their wallets, they may think twice about indecency on the airwaves."

Upton's panel plans to hold a hearing later this month on indecency. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) included language that called for stiffer FCC fines in a recent spending bill.

"I personally believe that the growing coarseness and use of such profanity at a time when we are very likely to know that children are watching is abhorrent and irresponsible," the FCC chairman said. "And it is irresponsible of our programmers to continue to try to push the envelope of a reasonable set of policies that tries to legitimately balance the interest of the First Amendment with the need to protect our kids. And I think that line is beginning to be crossed."

Powell's strong remarks came a day after he asked his four fellow FCC commissioners to overturn an FCC enforcement bureau ruling in October that a profanity uttered by rock singer Bono during an NBC awards program in January was not indecent.

The FCC received widespread criticism and ridicule for appearing to rule that it is acceptable to use the profanity on broadcast television.

"Nothing hurts me more than when I hear someone say, 'The FCC says it's okay.' The FCC does not say it's okay," Powell said. "There is nothing in [the enforcement bureau's] decision that is meant to imply that. Anyone who thinks they're going to run a business on that exception is sorely mistaken."

Powell has not, however, asked for a fine to be levied against NBC or any of the stations it owns or its affiliates, which angered the Parents Television Council, one of the first groups to file an FCC complaint about Bono's profanity.

"While we welcome the change of spirit on Powell's part, and the FCC has tiptoed a little closer toward enforcing FCC decency rules by issuing this judgment, it still simply is not enough," Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, said in a statement yesterday. "The problem is not that Bono uttered the 'f-word.' The problem is that NBC deliberately chose to air it, has never apologized, and even has defended its behavior before the FCC."

"We do regret Bono's choice of words but it was a fleeting comment," an NBC spokeswoman said yesterday. "We did cut out his utterance in the Mountain and Pacific time zone airings and we implemented a seven-second delay in response."

The FCC is investigating an incident on a Fox network broadcast in December in which Nicole Richie, one of the stars of the Fox show "The Simple Life," uttered two profanities that were heard by most Fox viewers across the country.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company