"Parents are the first line of defense. But broadcasters and the electronics industry must play a valuable role in protecting our children from obscene and indecent programming," Mr. Bush said during a White House ceremony.
Fine capped at $3 million
The legislation, the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, increases the maximum indecency fine the FCC can impose on a station to $325,000, up from $32,500. However, any single act cannot be fined in excess of $3 million, so if local affiliates of a broadcast network all aired programming that was found to be indecent, collectively their fine would not be allowed to exceed $3 million.
While Mr. Bush acknowledged parents should certainly have a role in policing what their children watch, and that TVs have an off switch for a reason, he believes broadcasters haven't done enough. "Broadcasters have the duty to respect common decency, to take into account the public interest and to keep the public airwaves free of indecent material, especially during the hours when children are most likely to be watching and listening.
"Unfortunately, in recent years, broadcast programming has too often pushed the bounds of decency. One study found that, during the hours between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. -- the time when most families are watching TV -- the use of profanity on TV shows increased 95% from 1998 to 2002." Mr. Bush called the development "a bad trend. It's a bad sign."
FCC indecency complaints since 2000 have increased from hundreds per year to thousands, Mr. Bush said, adding: "People are saying, 'We're tired of it and we expect ... the government to do something about it.'"
A fine of $32,500 wasn't high enough, he said. "For some broadcasters, this amount -- it's like meaningless. It's relatively painless for them when they violate the decency standards."
Unfair to target broadcasters
The National Association Broadcasters in a statement said it is unfair to regulate broadcast TV and not other distribution platforms. "In issues related to programming content, NAB believes responsible self-regulation is preferable to government regulation. If there is regulation, it should be applied equally to cable and satellite TV, and satellite radio."
Those who pushed for the higher fines immediately praised the legislation.
"Families across America are fed up with the sexually raunchy and gratuitously violent content that's broadcast over the public airwaves, particularly during hours when millions of children are in the viewing audience," said L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parent Television Council. "The networks must have a significant financial penalty for violating the indecency law and the public trust. We hope that the hefty fines will cause the multibillion-dollar broadcast networks finally to take the law seriously."
The impact of the new fines will likely depend on the outcome of court cases either already filed or about to be filed challenging recent FCC indecency fines.