House Approves Legislation to Raise Cap on Indecency Fines

Jun 7, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday voted 379 to 35 to approve Senate legislation that would raise federal broadcast indecency fines tenfold to a maximum of $325,000 per violation.

President George W. Bush has signaled support for legislation that would help him appeal to the GOP’s conservative base. His signature would clear the way for the first change in the indecency law since 1992.

Broadcast television networks opposed the increase, saying it will have a chilling effect on programming. Enactment of the law will close a two-year debate over indecency that gained national prominence when singer Janet Jackson’s breast was bared during a Super Bowl halftime show on CBS.

The higher fines substantially raise the stakes for stations that air risqué and off-color material. The current maximum fine the Federal Communications Commission can assess for an indecency violation is $32,500. Critics including the watchdog Parents Television Council argued that was too little to discourage obscene broadcasts.

Cable and satellite TV providers remain exempt from FCC indecency prohibitions under the bill. But in the wake of the bill’s enactment, the PTC, which is credited for raising much of the fuss about off-color programming over the past couple years, is planning to emphasize a campaign to encourage the cable TV industry to offer programming a la carte–allowing subscribers to choose and pay for only the programming they want in their homes.

“The next step is to allow people to make their own decisions about cable programming and end the subsidy of graphic content on cable,” said Dan Isett, PTC’s director of corporate and government affairs.

Earlier Wednesday Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced legislation to encourage cable to offer programming a la carte.

Congress is sending the bill to President Bush three months after the FCC levied more than $4.5 million in indecency fines to television stations, its biggest penalties ever.

In 1992 lawmakers approved a measure ordering the FCC to create a so-called “safe harbor” for off-color material between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

A bill approved by the House last year would have raised the cap on FCC broadcast indecency fines to $500,000. The House bill also included controversial provisions that would have cleared the way for the FCC to fine on-air talent–not just the broadcast licensees–for infractions and would have allowed the agency to revoke the licenses of repeat offenders.

Under standard legislative procedures, leaders from the Senate and the House would have met in conference to iron out the differences between their bills before sending a compromise measure to the White House for the president’s signature.

But industry critics were concerned that the controversial provisions in the House bill could have stymied indecency legislation this year.

By simply accepting the Senate version of the legislation, which only raises the cap on the fines, the House avoided the possibility of indecency legislation being blocked in the Senate.