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."
Dorgan has tried to make the case that further media consolidation is related to growing indecency because large conglomerates can be out of touch with community standards.
Dorgan drew the ire of the Parents Television Council, which fought to raise the fines.
"The issue of media ownership is a poison pill when it is attached to indecency because the House has refused to even consider any bill that has media ownership attached to it," L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, said in a statement.
"Senator Dorgan has been a stalwart partner in the fight against indecency," Bozell said. "Yet today his selfish actions have undermined months -- in fact, years -- of progress on this issue by refusing to withdraw his media ownership provision in the [authorization] bill."
FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell asked Congress to increase the agency's power to fine broadcasters to create a deterrent to airing indecent material. FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps said the current fines are only the "cost of doing business" to billion-dollar conglomerates such as Viacom Inc., which owns the CBS television network, 39 television stations and more than 200 radio stations through its Infinity Broadcasting subsidiary.
In September, the FCC fined the 20 CBS-owned stations $27,500 each for a total of $550,000 for the Super Bowl incident, which the agency ruled was indecent. By FCC rules, radio and television stations cannot broadcast sexual or scatological material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to be watching. No such rules apply to cable and satellite television and radio stations.
While supporting the higher fines, Dorgan and others on the Hill have continued their fight against the FCC's media ownership rules, which were returned to the agency for reconsideration by a federal court in June, with the court saying the FCC had not adequately justified the new rules. Some of the new rules would relax media ownership, allowing the same company to own a newspaper and television station in the same city, while others tightened ownership limits on radio stations.
Dorgan fears that if FCC appeals the court's ruling and wins, the new rules could be adopted.
He wants them thrown out in their entirety and has been fighting them since their June 2003 adoption by the FCC. Attaching language to the indecency fines legislation was his latest strategy.