LAS VEGAS – Big increases in fines for indecent broadcasts appeared to be a sure thing to some lawmakers, likely to pass Congress in less time than Janet Jackson's (search) wardrobe malfunction.
But 18 months after her breast-baring at the Super Bowl, Congress has yet to approve any hike, even though most lawmakers publicly support the idea.
The House overwhelming passed legislation in February to raise the current $32,500 maximum penalty for indecency to $500,000. Similar legislation also passed the House last year, but once again it's stalled in the Senate.
While those who claim the big increase would be a censoring tool for the government are heartened, groups fighting obscenity on television and radio are frustrated.
"This should have happened a long, long time ago," said L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, an entertainment industry watchdog group. "The House continues to do its job and the Senate continues not to do its job."
Last year the Senate bill was held up and eventually scuttled by Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., who wanted the legislation to include a requirement that the Federal Communications Commission study violence on television. This year the issue has been bottled up in the Senate Commerce Committee.
Lanier Swann, director of government relations at Concerned Women for America said the panel's chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, "needs to answer for the reason that he isn't helping move this forward when it's something that the American public would really like to see."
Stevens hasn't said why two indecency bills pending in his committee have yet to get a hearing. He has advocated stronger indecency rules for broadcasters, and has complained about vulgarity on cable. His aides say he is not ignoring the issue and is crafting his own legislation.
Committee staff director Lisa Sutherland said Stevens would use the House bill as a framework, but would make changes. She did not detail them, but said Stevens was exploring how parents with cable television can protect children from indecent programming.
Opponents of higher fines worry that they would lead to less free expression.
"What has become clear is this really isn't about protecting kids. This is about changing television," said Jim Dyke, executive director of TV Watch, an advocacy group funded in part by the entertainment industry. "A politically active, savvy group of Americans has figured out a way to make TV in their own image."
His group helps educate parents on tools they can use to control what kids see on television.
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 rules do not apply to cable or satellite broadcasts.
The FCC defines obscene material as describing sexual conduct "in a patently offensive way" and lacking "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." Material deemed indecent contains references to sex or excretions.
The commission has been quiet on indecency recently, not issuing any fines against broadcasters so far this year. In 2004, the FCC issued a record $7.9 million in fines, including a $550,000 fine against Viacom Inc., which owns CBS, for the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show featuring Jackson.
Last month, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin hired anti-pornography activist Penny Nance to serve as a special adviser in the agency's office of strategic planning. Nance, founder of the Kids First Coalition and a former board member of Concerned Women for America, will work on broadcast and cable-related consumer and social issues.
The National Association of Broadcasters said it would prefer to see the nation's 13,000 radio stations and 1,700 TV stations police themselves.
"Most people would recognize that broadcast programming is far less explicit in terms of sex and violence than what you routinely find on cable and satellite TV and radio," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.
One of the bills before Stevens' committee was introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. It would raise the maximum fine tenfold to $325,000 per incident.
The other bill, introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., would boost the top fine to $500,000. It also would extend indecency rules to cable and satellite, and — for the first time — it would allow the government to regulate violence on television.
"We have a moral obligation to tackle television violence and provide parents with the tools to make their children safer," Rockefeller said.
The House bill is H.R. 310. The Senate bills are S.616 and S.193.