WASHINGTON – Federal Communications Commission (search) Chairman Michael Powell (search) said Wednesday he wants a tenfold increase in the fines that can be imposed on broadcasters for indecent programming.
The current maximum levy is $27,500, which Powell said is "peanuts" for big media companies.
"They're just a cost of doing business," he told a National Press Club luncheon. "That has to change."
Powell's proposal, which needs congressional approval, comes amid continued criticism of the FCC for a ruling last October that an expletive uttered by the musician Bono (search) on a network TV program was not indecent because it was used as an adjective rather than to describe a sex act. And it follows a report last September by a conservative advocacy group, the Parents Television Council, that found much more foul language on network TV.
The trend has attracted the attention of federal lawmakers, who plan a hearing this month focusing on indecency. Broadcasters are trying to compete with coarser cable programming and are going after young men, who are coveted by advertisers and considered less likely to be offended by explicit language.
"Clearly, we're beyond the 'Ozzie and Harriet,' days but we still don't need some of this language that's out there," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, which has scheduled the hearing for Jan. 28.
"It's on the air because they can get away with it," Upton said. "This is the use of the public airwaves. From what I know, the public does not appreciate the move to this type of language, and I don't either."
Under FCC rules and federal law, radio stations and over-the-air television channels cannot air obscene material at any time, and cannot air indecent material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The FCC defines obscene material as describing sexual conduct "in a patently offensive way" and lacking "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." Indecent material is not as offensive but still contains references to sex or excretions.
There are no such requirements for cable channels, which do not use the public airwaves.
Watchdogs say broadcasters should match cable quality, not cable language.
"Nobody turns on `The Sopranos' to see sex, violence and foul language," said Lara Mahaney, director of corporate and entertainment affairs for the Parents Television Council. "It's good programming."
The National Association of Broadcasters declined to comment. So did NBC, which aired the Golden Globes Awards show last year where Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock group U2, said "this is really, really, f------ brilliant."
Powell has asked the other four FCC commissioners to overturn the FCC enforcement bureau's ruling that Bono's comments were not indecent or obscene because the F-word was used as an adjective. Legislation has been introduced in the House to prohibit broadcasters from airing eight specific words or phrases, including the word uttered by Bono.
The chairman's call for higher fines attracted support from Upton, who said he would introduce legislation this month to boost fines.
"He rightly complained about the lack of his ability to fine guilty parties," Upton said. "We're going to do all we can do to strengthen that arm of his to try to get this junk off the air."
The Senate Commerce Committee last year passed legislation boosting the penalties for indecency from $27,500 to $250,000, part of a bill renewing the FCC. The full Senate did not act on it.
The commission's two largest penalties for indecency were $1.7 million against Infinity Broadcasting in 1995 to settle several cases against radio disc jockey Howard Stern (search) and $357,000 in October against Infinity for a segment on the "Opie and Anthony" radio show in which a couple was said to be having sex in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Some critics say media consolidation has contributed to coarser language on the airwaves. They say programming decisions increasingly are being made by media company officials who have no connection to the communities they serve.
"There is a link between local ownership and a sensitivity to the needs of the community," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm. "It is not an accident that on the radio side, it is the large national companies that push the envelope and it is not an accident that major networks engage in this on the TV side."
Powell, however, said broadcasting has become more competitive. But rather than prompting better programming, "it's a race to the bottom," he said.