By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
The Senate voted yesterday to substantially increase fines for broadcast indecency, responding to months of public outrage over racy radio and television broadcasts that culminated with the exposure of Janet Jackson's breast during CBS's telecast of the Super Bowl halftime show in January.
An amendment attached to a Defense Department authorization bill likely to be voted upon today would give the Federal Communications Commission authority to increase the maximum fine for each incident of broadcast indecency from $32,500 to $275,000, with a cap of $3 million a day.
A House committee approved similar legislation earlier this year, but it stalled.
The amendment "is a clear signal to broadcasters that Congress and the American people expect them to abide by the longstanding guidelines for use of the public airwaves," the author of the amendment, Sen. Sam Brownback (R- Kan.), said in a written statement. "This bill will empower the FCC to levy fines that are updated to reflect the current market by allowing increased fines that will have a tangible, punitive effect."
Brownback wrote his amendment to deal solely with the fines. Other senators added language to strike down FCC rules that would allow big media companies to grow larger. And the Senate agreed to attach a measure requiring the FCC to study whether the V-chip and television ratings protect children from violent content.
The resulting package passed 99 to 1. Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) cast the dissenting vote, saying he objected to the addition of language dealing with the media ownership rules.
The House already has passed its version of the defense bill so the two houses must now confer to decide whether the fines and other measures will be included in the bill sent to President Bush for signing.
Senate Republican sources were optimistic that a bill calling for higher fines would be sent to the president.
Conferees for the House and Senate also will discuss other language in the bill.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who won a "resolution of disapproval" against the new media rules last September, attached language to Brownback's amendment that would invalidate the FCC's new rules. FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell has argued the current rules are out of date and that some of them have been invalidated by a federal court.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia agreed to leave the current rules in place pending an appeal by consumer groups. If the court ultimately remands the rules to the FCC, the agency will have to rewrite them. If the court upholds the rules, they will go into effect unless Congress acts.
"All I'm doing every chance I get is taking a big swing and see if I can hit a home run and derail the FCC rules," Dorgan said in an interview yesterday. He said he has no idea whether his amendment would survive the conference.
Also attached to the defense bill was an amendment by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) that would require the FCC to study whether the V-chip and television ratings protect children from violent content. If it is 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.
The Senate agreed to one other change. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) added language to Brownback's amendment that would protect smaller-market broadcasters from crippling fines by allowing the FCC to consider their size when assessing fines.
Last week, the FCC increased its maximum indecency fine from $27,500 to $32,500, to allow for inflation, as it is required to do every four years.
The FCC has begun ordering fines for each incident of indecency, rather than levy one fine for a broadcast that may include several indecent incidents.
Since January, the FCC has fined Clear Channel Communications Inc. and Infinity Broadcasters, owned by media giant Viacom Inc., about $1.5 million for broadcast indecency by radio host Howard Stern and others. This month, Clear Channel settled all indecency fines pending and erased all case under investigation at the FCC for $1.75 million. Infinity has said it will fight its fines.