Officially getting the anti-indecency ball rolling in the new Congress, key lawmakers in the House and Senate last week introduced legislation that would raise the cap on fines for broadcast indecency violations by at least a factor of 10.
As it stands, the cap on Federal Communications Commission fines for off-color broadcasts is $32,500. Under the Senate legislation introduced last week, the limit for a single offense would rise to $325,000. The House measure would raise the cap to $500,000.
Under the Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., the FCC could punish a broadcaster for a series of indecent utterances in a single program, for a total of up to $3 million.
“We must have punitive damages to give some teeth to the current fine structure so there will be meaningful deterrents to broadcasters,” Sen. Brownback said.
Said Sen. Lieberman, “In a media culture that increasingly pushes the envelope on sex and violence, the role of the FCC is to ensure that broadcasters do not cross that line of decency.”
Aside from raising the cap on fines to $500,000, the House measure, introduced by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., includes a three-strikes-and-you’re-out provision that would put in jeopardy the licenses of stations that accrue three indecency violations.
In addition, Rep. Upton’s bill includes language making clear that the FCC can fine the performers who utter the indecencies at issue-not only the broadcast station licensee. The measure also includes a provision requiring the FCC to act on indecency complaints within 180 days of their filing at the agency.
In a statement, the congressman said the legislation was identical to a measure approved by a 391-22 vote in the House last March 11. But since the legislation was not signed into law last year, it must be re-introduced and voted anew in the new congressional session that began this month.
“At their current levels, fines are more of a cost of doing business rather than a deterrent,” Rep. Upton said. “With passage of this legislation, I am confident that broadcasters will think twice about pushing the envelope.”
On a related front, the FCC last week held that use of such common euphemisms for the male sexual organ as “dick” on prime-time television may not run afoul of indecency regulations, depending on the context of the references.
“In context and as used in the complained-of broadcasts, these were epithets intended to denigrate or criticize their subjects,” said the FCC in a pair of orders dismissing 36 indecency complaints from the watchdog Parents Television Council. “Their use in this context was not sufficiently explicit or graphic and/or sustained to be patently offensive.”
But the FCC warned that use of the same words could raise indecency concerns if used in a context that made their use patently offensive. The FCC also said that the fleeting uses of additional words cited in the complaints-including penis, testicle, vaginal, ass, bastard, bitch, hell, damn, orgasm, nipples, breast, can, pissed, crap and bastard-did not constitute indecencies in the context with which they were used in the prime-time programs.
In a statement, the PTC accused the FCC of abandoning its public interest responsibility by “lumping all 36 complaints into one great mishmash of imprecision.”