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Upton Gets Bipartisan Backing

Feb 2, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Giving a shot of testosterone to what already looks like a regulatory behemoth, the Bush administration last week endorsed legislation to crack down on indecent broadcasts by jacking up the maximum fine for airing off-color programming from $27,500 to $275,000.
“As stewards of the public airwaves, broadcasters have a statutory obligation to serve the public interest,” said Donald Evans, secretary of the Department of Commerce, in a Jan. 28 letter to Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. “By increasing the applicable penalties tenfold, the bill you have proposed will empower the Federal Communications Commission to punish violations of our indecency laws with meaningful fines.”
At congressional hearings last week, Rep. Upton made clear that the bill, which also would raise the maximum fine for a continuing series of indecent broadcasts from $300,000 to $3 million, was being put on a legislative “fast track” and may be beefed up to encourage license revocations for habitual offenders.
“Should we have a policy of three strikes and you’re off-off the airwaves?” the lawmaker asked.
One enhancement suggested by L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Parents Television Council, would be to hold stations liable for off-color programming provided by their networks.
In his letter to Rep. Upton, Mr. Evans said the Bush administration also backed amendments to the bill that would make clear that indecencies on children’s TV programming would be punished by the maximum available penalties.
“While it is not the role of government to dictate the content of broadcast programming, existing laws are meant to protect families and children from being inundated with obscene and indecent broadcasts,” Mr. Evans said.
With the Bush administration on board, the Upton bill may be all but unstoppable in an election year, particularly since it has already gained the support of key congressional leaders on both sides of the political aisle, including Reps. Billy Tauzin, R-La., John Dingell, D-Mich., and Ed Markey, D-Mass.
“It’s really hard to raise G-rated kids in an R-rated world,” said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., one of the many lawmakers who criticized during the hearings what they perceive as a rapidly escalating level of indecency on radio and in TV fare.
Added Rep. Markey, “Clearly many broadcasters need to clean up their act.”
Also at the hearings, David Solomon, chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, confirmed that FCC Chairman Michael Powell is attempting to reverse a controversial agency staff decision last year holding that U2 rocker Bono’s use of the word “f***ing” during NBC’s telecast of the 2003 Golden Globe awards show had not run afoul of indecency prohibitions.
On the eve of the hearings, the FCC also announced it had fined Clear Channel Communications $755,000 for airing sexually oriented programming on several Florida radio stations. In addition, the agency said it had fined Young Broadcasting another $27,500 because an interview subject on the company’s KRON-TV in San Francisco flashed himself briefly on the station’s morning news show.
“Today we open another front in our increased efforts to curb indecency on our nation’s airwaves by focusing on indecency in television,” said FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
Said Rep. Dingell, “Whether the FCC’s decision was motivated by recent public outcry or in anticipation of today’s hearing does not matter. Fear is a great motivator, and I am pleased with the decision.
“I hope that it signals a heightened seriousness on the part of the agency, and I will be watching closely to see that the FCC does not backtrack on its newfound aggressiveness on this issue.”