Congress is inching closer to making it much more expensive for a radio or TV station to air something indecent.
The Senate Commerce Committee, following its House counterpart, voted Tuesday to increase the fine for indecent programming from $27,500 to $500,000.
The bill also would delay the Federal Communications Commission's (search) new broadcast ownership rules from taking effect until investigators at Congress' General Accounting Office (search) can study any relationship between media consolidation and indecency.
Lawmakers appear eager to crack down on what critics say is increasingly coarse programming airing during hours when children can hear and see it. The rallying point was last month's racy Super Bowl halftime show that ended with singer Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson's breast to 90 million viewers.
"Americans, especially parents, are fed up with content producers and broadcasters who have for too long ignored regulations that are designed to keep a standard of decency and protect children on the public's airwaves," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a sponsor of the bill.
The Senate bill would count each utterance rather than each program as a single indecency violation, but it would cap the maximum fine for a 24-hour period at $3 million. It also would direct the FCC to begin license revocation procedures after a third indecency violation.
The FCC already has said it will begin fining broadcasters for each indecent incident.
The indecency rules prohibit over-the-air radio and TV stations from airing material that refers to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuned in.
Some broadcasters worry that stronger regulations could infringe on the First Amendment.
"We've always been called upon to defend the worst of speech," said Joseph A. Reilly, president of the New York State Broadcasters Association (search). "We're never called upon to defend Lawrence Welk. I'm a little concerned about chilling free speech while we regulate it."
The legislation also would hold up the FCC's media ownership rules until the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, looks into whether there is relationship between indecency violations and media consolidation. The rules, temporarily blocked by a federal appeals court, would make it easier for companies to own newspapers and broadcast stations in the same community.
"The evidence suggests that more of the complaints are filed against the larger organizations," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. "We don't need fewer voices in this country controlling the media. The growth of concentration in radio and television has been alarming in recent years."
Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, praised Tuesday's actions. "The committee expanded the indecency debate to include other important concerns, such as determining if large media conglomerates pump excessive amounts of offensive or unwanted programming into consumers' homes," said Gene Kimmelman, senior public policy director for Consumers Union.
The committee rejected a provision to apply broadcast indecency standards to cable and satellite channels. The FCC currently has no power to regulate those channels, which are available to the 85 percent of the 108.4 million U.S. households with televisions.
Meanwhile, the nation's largest radio chain, Clear Channel Communications (search) announced Tuesday it had bought equipment to provide for up to a 20-second delay for live broadcasts. The chain earlier had announced it would pay a record $755,000 fine for broadcasts of "Bubba the Love Sponge," which the FCC found indecent, and fired the disc jockey responsible.
The bills are S. 2056 and H.R. 3717.