FCC Chair Powell Pushing for Tougher Indecency Penalties

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In an effort to crack down on indecent broadcasts, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell last week announced that he is asking Congress to beef up “by at least tenfold” the fines for off-color broadcasts.
Sources said the chairman is also promoting a campaign to clarify a controversial agency staff decision holding that rock star Bono’s use of the word “f**king” during an NBC broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards last year had not run afoul of the agency’s existing indecency prohibitions.
Under the existing law, the maximum fine for indecency is set at $27,500, and Mr. Powell said that is not enough to discourage what he sees as the increasingly “abhorrent and irresponsible” use of off-color material on radio and TV.
“Some of these fines are peanuts,” Mr. Powell said at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington. “They’re just a cost of doing business to a lot of producers, and that has to change.”
Sources said Mr. Powell is also troubled by a general perception that the agency staff’s Bono decision had somehow cleared the way for using the “f-word” on broadcast stations.
Sources said the chairman’s campaign to win higher statutory indecency fines looks good for this year, getting considerable momentum from election-year politics.
Indeed, within minutes of Mr. Powell’s announcement, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., vowed to introduce legislation to “substantially increase” indecency fines.
“It is well past the time that we clean up our airwaves,” said Rep. Upton, who has scheduled House telecommunications subcommittee hearings on indecency enforcement for Jan. 28. “Stiffer fines should get the attention of broadcasters nationwide.”
Sources said Mr. Powell’s ability to crack down on the use of foul language on broadcast stations is far less certain, however, because case law defines indecency narrowly as patently offensive language that “depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities.”
In the Bono decision, the FCC staff held that the rock star had used “f-word” adjectivally, without referring to sexual or excretory activities or organs.
But in his press club remarks, Mr.Powell said the staff decision should not be interpreted to clear the way for use of the “f-word.”
“Anyone who thinks they’re going to run a business on that expectation is sorely mistaken,” he said. “It’s irresponsible of our programmers to continue to try to push the envelope of a reasonable set of policies that try to legitimately balance the interests of the First Amendment with the need to protect our kids.”
Sources said Mr. Powell has been under increasing pressure to act by the activist Parents Television Council. In addition, Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has been leading an agency charge for a crackdown on off-color programming.