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Broadcasters Promise Their Own Clean Air Act

Times Staff Writer

Howard Stern was not in the House hearing room Thursday morning when the heads of six broadcasting companies defended their programs against charges of indecency.

Neither was “Bubba the Love Sponge,” the shock jock who broadcast a Florida radio show that the Federal Communications Commission said was designed to “pander to, titillate and shock listeners.”

But they might as well have been.

In the third hearing in as many months about indecency on the airwaves, a House subcommittee made clear that it has the political will -- and the bipartisan votes -- to pass legislation in the coming weeks to increase tenfold, to $275,000, the fine for each violation of FCC decency standards, up to a maximum of $3 million.

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The issue came to the fore again this week, when Clear Channel Radio, which owns about 1,200 stations nationwide, dropped Stern’s show from the six stations that carried it and fired Bubba (whose real name is Todd Clem) from its Tampa, Fla., station. In both cases, the hosts had broadcast crude sexual references that provoked complaints from listeners.

Noting his delight at Stern’s banishment from Clear Channel, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, wondered what had taken network executives so long.

“I don’t think he’s changed his tune,” replied John Hogan, president and chief executive officer of Clear Channel Radio, “but we’ve changed ours. We heard your concerns ... that inappropriate material does not have a place on the air.”

Stern, who is syndicated by Clear Channel rival Infinity Broadcasting, a division of Viacom Inc., charged on his show Thursday that he was “under attack,” but Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) defended the subcommittee, saying that reminding broadcasters of their responsibilities to comply with FCC rules on decency was “hardly McCarthyism.”

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Under FCC regulations and federal law, radio stations and broadcast television networks cannot broadcast “obscene” material anytime and may not show “indecent” material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The rules do not apply to satellite or cable television networks or satellite radio.

As a result of recent public and congressional outrage over such incidents as Janet Jackson’s breast-baring stunt during the Super Bowl halftime show and singer Bono’s profanity on the 2003 Golden Globe awards, network executives promised a range of voluntary reforms.

Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman told the subcommittee that the network had added personnel and equipment to bolster its delay mechanism for live shows, held discussions with employees on indecent and violent programming, and launched a program to inform parents of the availability of the V-chip in televisions and other technologies designed to allow filtering of obscene or violent shows.

At Clear Channel, Hogan said, producers have made clear to entertainers that the artists not only will share financial liability for any fines levied by the FCC for inappropriate broadcasts, but will be terminated if the show is found to be obscene.

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And for the first time in its 76-year history, the Academy Awards show, to be broadcast live Sunday night, will feature a delay mechanism so that inappropriate material can be headed off, said Alex Wallau, president of ABC Television.

But nothing the executives promised was likely to slow the congressional move to enact increased fines. While praising the networks for their voluntary reforms, Upton asked, “Will they still be as vigilant without the eyes of Congress staring down on them?”

Upton predicted that the bill would be passed by the full House Energy and Commerce Committee next week and reach the House floor soon after. Several members signaled their intention to offer amendments -- to hold individual entertainers liable or to address the disparity between network broadcasters held to standards imposed by the FCC and cable networks not similarly constrained.

Any effort to hold on-air personalities financially liable is likely to provoke protest from artists. Berman told Upton that “we don’t create an environment where talent is afraid to show up.”

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And AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, issued a statement Thursday, saying: “The responsibility for complying with FCC regulations rests with the employers. Our members aren’t responsible for programming the stations and they don’t hold a station’s license to broadcast on the public airwaves. It’s completely inappropriate and unprecedented for a broadcast company to shift the burden of complying with FCC regulations onto the backs of its employees.”

Backlash also came from listeners to Stern’s show in the markets where it was canceled. Several callers complained about the show being yanked from their local stations and asked what they could do.

The show was pulled from stations in San Diego; Pittsburgh; Louisville, Ky.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, Fla.

“It’s the beginning of the end,” said Stern, telling his audience he wasn’t sure whether the suspension was temporary or permanent. “They’re out to get me.”

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The show still contained raunchy material, including Stern talking to his girlfriend by phone about having sex the night before, and a segment involving two women who engaged in risque behavior with a crude clown.

“I don’t think there will be a solution to this unless cable is involved,” FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps said in an interview, noting that 85% of Americans get their television through cable or satellite and that many homes as a result get stations like MTV whether they want them or not. “Sometimes our friends in cable fly a little too blithely, thinking they are outside the scope of oversight.”

Copps, who thinks current law gives the FCC sufficient leeway to regulate cable, said he would welcome new authority from Congress. “We’re talking the talk. Now we have to walk the walk.”

For the most part, members of Congress talked about what they saw as a race to the bottom, a pervasive coarseness of language and behavior on television that is reflected in the general culture. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) said his 5-year-old son did not see the Super Bowl halftime show. But when Cox recently called for a “halftime” in their roughhousing antics, he said, his son responded by pulling off his T-shirt and proclaiming, “Halftime show?”

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Calling himself a libertarian who does not necessarily want government “to dictate what Americans can say in public and private,” Cox added that in a culture where his son heard about the halftime show in kindergarten, television’s influence extends beyond the set.

“For many people, turning it off is not enough,” Cox said.

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Times staff writer Greg Braxton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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