WASHINGTON The Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a tenfold increase in broadcast indecency fines, significantly raising the stakes for companies that air inappropriate material on television and radio, and prompting praise from influential pro-family groups nationwide.
The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), passed late Thursday with the help of an unusual parliamentary maneuver by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) that assured approval unless any senator objected.
"It's time that broadcast indecency fines represent a real economic penalty and not just a slap on the wrist," said Brownback, according to The Associated Press. "Radio and television waves are public property, and the companies who profit from using the public airwaves should face meaningful fines for broadcasting indecent material."
The move to increase indecency fines has been growing since singer Janet Jacksons wardrobe malfunction during the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl.
Pro-family groups placed the issue on their top agendas for 2005 and 2006, and heavily backed legislation in both chambers of Congress that would up the ante for broadcast giants.
American families have been waiting for more than two years for Congress to add some teeth to indecency fines, said Daniel Weiss, a senior analyst at Focus on the Family Action. "Today we have a hard-won victory over an entertainment industry intent on polluting the public airwaves."
The House of Representatives passed a similar legislation with an overwhelming 389 to 38 vote in early 2005. The House bill differs from the Senates in that the maximum fine for each violation would be $500,000 $175,000 higher than that proposed in the Senate version. The House bill would also require the Federal Communications Commission to hold a license revocation hearing after three offenses by a broadcaster.
The Senate and House versions of the Indecency bill must be reconciled before heading to the White House, where President Bush has vowed to sign legislation cracking down on indecent exposure.
The highest penalty ever fined by the FCC was in March, when 111 stations were charged $32,500 the current maximum for a simulated orgy scene on the CBS series Without a trace. The $3.6 million total fine has been cut to $3.3 million, but has still set the record. Under the new Senate measure, the fine could have been as much as $36 million.
As expected, broadcasters opposed the measure, opting instead for self-regulation of content.
"In areas of programming content, we believe responsible self-regulation by all media companies is preferable to government regulation," said Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters.
However, pro-family groups applauded the measure as reasonable.
"The current fine cap is no deterrent to multi-million dollar broadcasters," Weiss said. "This legislation simply raises the fines to a reasonable level one which will cause broadcasters to think twice before continuing to flout the law.
Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, agreed, saying the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act goes a long way in cleaning up the airwaves.
"Today's media giants like Viacom, which owns CBS and MTV view the current fines for indecency as an irrelevant cost of doing business, said Perkins. Keeping the fines relevant to the bottom-line says to broadcasters and performers Americans expect decency on the public airwaves.