Caught in the Crosshairs

Congress slams networks with tough indecency bill. Is violence next?

Congress to the media: You asked for it. You got it, in spades. Next on the grill: TV violence.

The House Commerce Committee gave its righteous 49-1 approval to an indecency bill that raises fines far higher than originally planned, raises the threat of license revocation with a single #$%^&, and puts performers and program suppliers in the content crosshairs. Passage could come as early as next week, and the president's signature by the end of the month.

"The networks themselves told us the fines weren't strong enough," says bill sponsor Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.)

The lone dissenter was Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.). "I strongly believe in the First Amendment, and if I have to stand alone to defend it, I will do it."

The political wind is not blowing in her favor. Although stations get some new protections from content they can't control, the new bill has triggers that make it easier for them to lose their licenses.

Even the NAB, which has been either silent or pushing self-regulation, can't stomach this bill. Its public posture was conciliatory opposition, "We hear the call of legislators for voluntary action to address this issue," says president Eddie Fritts.

Unfortunately for broadcasters, it may be a little late to start putting up a fight. The legislation as originally passed by the House Telecommunications Subcommittee would have raised indecency fines by a factor of 10, to $275,000, and that's about it. Shocking enough.

But the bill as passed by Commerce doubles the fines to nearly $500,000, and increases the potential fines for performers or networks by almost 50 times, to $500,000. Plus, it throws a "shot clock" for the FCC, which now has to respond to complaints within 180 days. Indecency fines should now be levied on the "willful utterer," says Congress, which brings performers and network far more into play.

For example, if at next year's Oscars the person with his finger on the button falls asleep in hour four and misses a star's f-word, the performer will be liable, not the network and station. That's provided they didn't know. If a network knowingly lets an f-word through, it shares liability with the performer, but if the station is clueless, it's off the hook.

When a station is found to be liable, however, a single offense will now be considered a strike against it at renewal time. Three strikes and its an automatic license revocation proceeding.

Georgia Democrat Zell Miller introduced a bill to fine broadcasters 25¢ per viewer per indecency fine. (CBS would have paid $35 million for the Janet Jackson incident.) Miller's bill is unlikely to pass, but the issue of TV violence gained traction. Several members sought to expand the indecency dialogue and the definition to include violence. That was considered a dealbreaker and was kept out of the bill, but not off the table.

Upton says to look for violence hearings later this year. The leadership of the committee is also giving FCC Chairman Michael Powell 60 days to start investigating the constitutionality of regulating violence. The commission must report back with its findings by the end of the year.

If you're checking your calendar, that's a month after the election and a month before the Super Bowl.