One year after singer Janet Jackson bared her breast during the Super Bowl halftime show, Congress is pushing to up the ante for broadcasters that cross the line on sex and language.
Last week, two bills were introduced that would raise by at least tenfold the maximum fines the Federal Communications Commission could impose.
A bill by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) -- cosponsored by an influential group that includes Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- would boost the amount from $32,500 per incident to $325,000. The Senate, Brownback said in a statement, “overwhelmingly agrees that the FCC needs better tools to enforce broadcast decency laws.”
A harsher measure by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) would allow the FCC to levy fines of as much as $500,000 per incident.
The move to increase penalties started last year but couldn’t be resolved in time before Congress adjourned. Although the exact amounts are in question, no one doubts that fines are heading up.
“This bill is noncontroversial, bipartisan,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).
Lobbyists said the one thing that could get in the way would be opposition to amendments or other clauses attached to the bills. A potentially controversial provision in the House bill would hold performers more accountable personally by subjecting them to fines of as much as $500,000, up from $11,000 now.
A second potential roadblock in the House bill would make it easier to take away a station’s license by requiring that a revocation hearing be held after a third indecency offense. Sources close to San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation’s largest radio chain, said the company would lobby against that provision.
Still, none of those concerns should derail a get-tougher movement that is still riding the momentum of the Jackson incident. In a statement last week, Lieberman bemoaned “a media culture that increasingly pushes the envelope on sex and violence,” and added that the FCC needed “more leverage to do its job by increasing the consequences of violating our broadcasting standards.”
At the Super Bowl last Feb. 1, the three seconds during which Jackson’s breast was exposed prompted more discussion than the 60 minutes of football. The incident also handed ammunition to FCC commissioners who already believed the airwaves were becoming filled with too much raunchy content. Chairman Michael K. Powell said he was outraged by Jackson’s halftime antics. The FCC, which received 530,828 complaints, slapped CBS with a $550,000 fine for airing the incident on its stations. The network is appealing the fine.
In the wake of the furor, broadcasters have been resigned to tougher penalties for indecency. Jonathan D. Blake, a Washington lawyer who has represented several hundred CBS and NBC television network affiliates, said the industry had no organized opposition to higher fines. Instead, he said, broadcasters are spending their lobbying capital on other matters before the FCC, such as efforts to move to digital television.
Privately, broadcasters say they aren’t panicking because they’ve taken steps to monitor what gets on the air and to clean up their acts. And the industry’s biggest lightning rod, radio talk-show host Howard Stern, is moving to satellite radio, where he will be free of FCC regulations.
Nonetheless, free-speech advocates are dismayed. They contend that most indecency complaints are generated by a single advocacy group, the Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council.
Phil Verveer, a veteran Washington communications lawyer, said the indecency outcry “didn’t reflect some broad public anxiety but a highly organized effort.”
And many of those complaints, free-speech advocates note, are rejected. Last week, the FCC tossed out 36 complaints by the Parents Television Council targeting sexual content or coarse language on such shows as “Will & Grace,” “Friends,” “NYPD Blue” and “Gilmore Girls.”
“There is already a sense that some of these complaints are laughable,” said Robert J. Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
For broadcasters, however, bigger fines are no joke. Clear Channel last year agreed to pay what was then a record $1.75 million, eclipsed a short time later when New York-based Viacom Inc. agreed to pay $3.5 million.
All told, the FCC last year recommended $7.7 million in penalties. Supporters of tougher indecency penalties say the case for even higher fines has already been made for them, thanks to Jackson, Stern and others.
“I don’t think anyone can say there isn’t a problem with indecency,” Parents Television Council spokeswoman Lara Mahaney said.