WASHINGTON – In the wake of the so-called "wardrobe malfunction" during this year's Super Bowl, federal lawmakers passed a measure Thursday to hit TV and radio broadcasters with heftier penalties for violating decency rules.
Before the bill passed with overwhelming support, House lawmakers debated the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004 (search), which increases the penalties for violations by television and radio broadcasters for allowing obscene, indecent and profane language on the air.
"I think it's imperative that we get this bill to the president's desk as fast as we can," said Rep. Fred Upton (search), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.
Current 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. The Federal Communications Commission (search) already has said it will begin fining broadcasters for each indecent incident.
Although the Senate and House bills boosting the fines were introduced before this year's controversial Super Bowl halftime show, the escapades aired that night were definitely the rallying point.
The halftime show ended with singer Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson's breast to 90 million viewers. What was described as a "wardrobe malfunction" had media decency advocates, parents and others up in arms, especially since it was repeated over and over on public television, talk shows and news broadcasts.
"The halftime show was full of crude and sexually explicit performances," Texas Democratic Rep. Martin Frost (search) said on the House floor Thursday. "Throughout the day, we were subjected also to some offensive ads -- all this was going on in our gyms, our living rooms, places we gather every year to watch the Super Bowl."
Frost noted that one in five children were watching the biggest sporting event of the year during the bare-all performance, but said "we shouldn't be singling out the Super Bowl broadcast for our disapproval."
Radio shows, family-hour cable programming that toes the line between what's appropriate and what's not appropriate for kids and other outlets also need to be reined in, he said.
Upton, a Michigan Republican, introduced the bill on Jan. 21 and a week later, it won the support of the White House. The legislation has wide bipartisan support and nearly 100 members of Congress have co-sponsored the measure.
Other highlights of the bill:
--Raises maximum fine against a broadcast license-holder from $27,500 to $500,000.
--Increases maximum fine against a performer from $11,000 to $500,000 and allows the Federal Communications Commission to impose the penalty after the first offense. Under current rules, the FCC must wait for a second offense.
--Orders FCC to act on indecency complaints within 180 days after they are received.
--Mandates FCC to consider revoking license of any broadcaster found with three indecency violations.
--Exempts affiliates from indecency fines if the program was supplied by the network and the individual stations did not have a chance to review it in advance or, if in the case of a live broadcast, had no reason to suspect it could be indecent.
--Expresses the sense of Congress that broadcasters should set aside an hour in prime time to air family-friendly programming.
Rep Ed Markey (search), D-Mass., a main co-sponsor of the bill, chastised the FCC for not using the enforcement tools it has as its disposal -- such as revoking station licenses -- to be a more aggressive enforcer of current decency rules.
In fact, he said, testimony from FCC Chairman Michael Powell (search) has showed that cases from two to three years ago of broadcasters violating the rules are still languishing.
"It appears as though the industry has largely concluded that the FCC is a paper tiger," Markey said. "The rare and paltry fines the commission assess have become nothing more than a joke within the broadcast industry."
Some Democrats, however, said the bigger problem is the increasing amount of media consolidation, or fewer media companies controlling more programming.
These media giants are the "biggest offenders" of indecency, said Rep. Bart Stupak (search), D-Mich.
"There's no question that indecency in the media is a disease that's infecting all of society," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey (search), D-N.Y. But this bill deals "only with the symptoms of the problem and not with the underlying cause," which, he said, is having fewer owners of the airwaves.
"The fact is, higher fines are going to do nothing," added Rep. David Obey (search), D-Wis., saying more local ownership of television stations is what's most needed.
"If you really want to do something to give communities the ability to stop this nonsense, you will take away from the FCC the ability to put broadcast power in the hands of a few corporations ... people don't want to see this garbage."
The bills are S. 2056 and H.R. 3717.
Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, noted that the industry has already scheduled an indecency summit for March 31.
"Voluntary industry initiatives are far preferable to government regulation when dealing with programming issues," Fritts said. "NAB does not support the bill as written, but we hear the call of legislators and are committed to taking voluntary action to address this issue."
Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest radio station chain, touted its own actions.
The company now has a 20-second delay for live broadcasts, announced new standards for its programs, suspended its broadcasts of the Howard Stern show (search) and fired the disc jockey known as "Bubba the Love Sponge," (search) whose programs brought the chain a record $755,000 fine for indecency.
"We hope never to face these higher fines because of the strong policy we've put in place," said executive vice president Andrew Levin. "To the extent it provides an incentive for other broadcasters who have not adopted voluntary guidelines to comply with the law, it may be a good thing."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.