House Considers Tougher Penalties for Indecent Programming

The government's power to punish broadcasters for indecent programming such as the 2004 Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" would increase tenfold under legislation Congress is ready to approve.

The House on Tuesday began debating the Senate-passed bill that would boost the top fines the Federal Communications Commission could impose on broadcasters from the current $32,500 to $325,000 for each violation. A vote was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

The legislation, expected to be signed by President Bush, is another outgrowth of Janet Jackson's breast-revealing incident at the Super Bowl that has made the FCC more aggressive in cracking down on indecent and obscene material on the TV and radio airwaves and in turn has prompted broadcasters to be more cautious in the material they air.

"It is something that should have passed two years ago," said L. Brent Bozell, president of the watchdog group Parents Television Council, which has led efforts to cite and condemn indecent broadcasts. "The $32,500 fine did not make them think twice about doing anything," he said.

But Jim Dyke, executive director of TV Watch, an interest group that opposes government regulation of television programming, said families already have the information needed to make informed decisions about what they watch. "Asking the government to take on the role of parents is not just bad public policy, it's unnecessary."

The legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., does not address issues such as the definition of indecent material and does not apply to cable and satellite radio and TV. It is also not as tough as a version passed by the House last year that would have increased the maximum fine to $500,000, allowed fines for individual performers and given the FCC the authority to revoke the licenses of broadcasters fined three or more times.

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. "The NAB position is that we think responsible self-regulation is preferable to government regulation in areas of program content," said spokesman Dennis Wharton.

Since the Super Bowl incident many radio and television stations have installed five-second tape delays on their live broadcasts to prevent improper language or actions from reaching viewers and listeners.

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 says indecent material is that which contains sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity.

FCC fines jumped from $440,000 in 2003 to almost $8 million in 2004 after the Super Bowl incident. That included a fine of more than $3 million levied against Viacom for multiple cases involving Howard Stern and other radio shock jocks.

The FCC recently denied a petition of reconsideration from CBS-owned stations facing $550,000 in fines over the Janet Jackson incident. The agency also recently handed down its biggest fine, against more than 100 CBS affiliates that aired an episode of the series "Without a Trace" that simulated an orgy scene.

Paul Levinson, chair of Fordham University's Communication and Media Studies Department, said he viewed the government effort to crack down on indecent material as "potentially a very damaging thing to freedom of expression." He said that "if you look at censorship and government regulation over the long run of history, it always seems to start on some kind of moral issue."