Congress Raises Indecency Fines Tenfold

Maximum Penalty Increased to $325,000 per Incident per Station

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- The U.S. House of Representatives today followed the U.S. Senate's vote yesterday to raise tenfold the amount of fines the Federal Communications Commission can levy for indecency violations, sending the legislation to President George W. Bush, who has promised to sign it.
The CBS Super Bowl incident that led to the proposed law to raise by tenfold the amount the FCC can fine broadcasters for indecency.
The CBS Super Bowl incident that led to the proposed law to raise by tenfold the amount the FCC can fine broadcasters for indecency. Credit: AP

"This is about protecting the public airwaves," said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who said his ire was raised not only by Janet Jackson's breast-baring episode during the Feb. 1, 2004, CBS Super Bowl halftime show, but by repeated lewd incidents on radio shows.

Lewd behavior on radio
"These cases included descriptions of people having sex in Saint Patrick's Cathedral, lewd scenes of a daughter having oral sex with her dad and a case in which radio hosts interviewed high-school girls about their sexual activities with crude reference to oral sex with the sound effects to match," he said.

He said the increase in maximum fines from $32,500 to $325,000 per incident per station -- or a maximum of $3 million for programming on multiple stations -- should cause broadcasters to think twice. "I believe that broadcasters do have a special place in our society given that they are stewards of the public airwaves. And with that stewardship come responsibility, including adherence to our nation's indecency laws."

Distinguishing public from pay
U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, said the legislation is aimed at reining in inappropriate acts on stations widely available to the general public. "Performers can do whatever they like on their albums or on subscription services like HBO, but public obscenity purely designed to shock people has no place on prime-time broadcast television using the public airwaves," he said.

While approving the legislation, some on the Hill questioned its effectiveness. U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., called it a "weak attempt at improving our media -- an uncreative policy that will harm our creative community." She said the indecency problems are a direct result of media concentration and lack of competition and media companies pulling away from local programming.

U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., a supporter of the increase, called it a "good first step" but also said it falls short of being comprehensive.

Challenge to fines
While daunting to broadcasters, the impact of the increase won't be clear until recent challenges to FCC fines get decided by appellate courts. Broadcasters have filed or are filing court cases to challenge the FCC's fines, including a $550,000 penalty levied on CBS and its stations for the 2004 Super Bowl incident.
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