Congress Agrees to Raise Broadcast-Indecency Fines

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006

More than two years after proclaiming outrage over Janet Jackson's briefly exposed breast during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, both houses of Congress have passed legislation that would significantly increase indecency fines for television and radio broadcasters.

On Thursday night, the Senate unanimously approved a bill that would increase from $32,500 to $325,000 the maximum fine that the Federal Communications Commission could impose for violating its standards for decency. The House previously passed a version that would raise the maximum fine to $500,000.

"When families are watching a Sunday night football game, they shouldn't have to brace themselves for a televised strip tease," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said in a floor statement yesterday, referring to the 2004 Super Bowl. Frist championed the new bill.

The unified congressional push comes as major networks are suing to overturn the government's authority to police the airwaves. The bills will proceed to conference to reconcile the fine amount and then to President Bush, who has said he will sign such legislation.

The FCC does not allow broadcast of "patently offensive" material of a sexual or excretory nature on over-the-air radio and television, such as ABC and Fox television and AM and FM radio stations, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., when children are most likely to be in the audience.

The agency does not police cable and satellite radio and television programming, such as shows on XM Satellite Radio, MTV, ESPN and HBO. Those would continue to be off-limits under the new legislation. Lobbying by the cable and satellite industries appears to have paid off, as have their education campaigns designed to instruct parents in how to use technology to block offensive channels.

The passage of the Senate bill is a "major victory for families," said L. Brent Bozell III, founder of the Parents Television Council, which has criticized the FCC for being soft on indecency.

Michael K. Powell , when he was FCC chairman, asked Congress for higher fines, saying that current amounts do little to discourage multibillion-dollar broadcast giants from crossing the line.

The exposing of Jackson's breast culminated a contentious year for the agency and Congress, as the two bodies tussled over several incidents of tasteless radio and television broadcasts, including the on-air utterance of the "F-word" by U2 frontman Bono that the agency originally ruled was not indecent, spurring widespread ridicule and criticism.

After the 2004 Super Bowl, the FCC moved swiftly to fine 20 CBS stations the then-maximum fine of $27,500, for a total of $550,000. The Senate and House each passed legislation that would have raised the fines substantially, but both bills stalled.

Last year, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) led a revival of the House version, fixing the maximum fine at $500,000. The Senate version stalled until Frist picked it up this year and pushed it through.

ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and more than 800 affiliated television stations sued in federal court last month to overturn several FCC indecency rulings proposed in March.

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