House Gets First Crack at Content


The House votes Thursday on an anti-indecency bill that hikes fines as high as $500,000 for broadcasts the FCC deems unacceptable.

The House bill is the more likely of two competing bills to reach the President's desk after the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday approved a tougher version hiking fines to as high as $1 million for a single incident.

Under the bill passed by the Senate committee, broadcasters would face a potential fine of $1 million per indecent, up to a cap of $3 million in a single day. Cable escaped relatively unscathed.

The bill would up indecency fines to $275,000 for the first violation, $375,000 for the second and $500,000 for the third. It would also authorize the FCC to double those penalties when there are aggravating factors, such as if the show were scripted and the station had had a chance to review it or if the audience was unusually large.

The FCC would have discretion to consider revoking a license after a broadcaster's first offense but would be obligated to launch a revocation proceeding for a third strike within any 8-year license cycle.

All indecency complaints must be resolved by the FCC within 18 months. The escalating fines could also be applied to DJs and other talent, but penalties against individuals would be capped at $500,000. To protect small stations from devastating multimillion-dollar sanctions, the FCC was given discretion to consider a licensee's ability to pay.

The bill also suspends FCC implementation of its June 2 deregulation of broadcast ownership restrictions even if the new limits, now stayed by a court, are upheld by judges. The moratorium would stay in place until the General Accounting Office completes a study of the impact of media consolidation on indecency. The FCC was also ordered to study the V-chip's effectiveness in blocking violent programming.

If the V-chip is found ineffective, the FCC will have to create a safe harbor for violence similar to the current 10 p.m.-6 a.m. indecency harbor.

Also part of the bill is a requirement that the NAB and other industry organizations be permitted to jointly create family viewing time periods.

An amendment that would have required cable systems to offer their channels on an a-la-carte basis was voted down, as was one that would have made cable and satellite basic service subject to indecency regulation.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat who led last year's fight, believed momentum generated after Janet Jackson breast-baring Super Bowl stunt would be sufficient to power other controversial measures. "We need a carrier" for anti-consolidation legislation and "this is the place." More likely is that the Senate will wind up voting on the House bill, perhaps cherrypicking some of the key Senate amendments and adding them on the floor.

McCain and ranking Democrat Ernest Hollings withdrew amendments that would have required cable operators to offer channels one-by-one rather than in tiered bundles of networks. Cable also escaped having its programming be covered by the bill's indecency punishments.