Indecency Battle Rocks The House and Senate

Factions fight over fines and even more-severe punishments

To pass anti-indecency legislation, Bill Frist must decide whom he wants to fight: his own Senate colleagues or the White House.

After the Senate Commerce Committee passed a politically controversial bill March 9, Frist will be tempted to seek a vote on a simpler version passed by the full House two days later. That incarnation increases fines for broadcast indecency from today's $27,500 per violation maximum to a staggering $500,000.

To the possible chagrin of senators, the White House has already indicated its preference for the House bill, which passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 391-22.

From the House floor, Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) praised colleagues for not loading their bill with controversial amendments: "It is imperative we get this bill to the President's desk as fast as we can."

The House bill also makes broadcast networks and performers liable for indecency fines up to the $500,000 limit, a feature that is opposed by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The FCC would be obligated to rule on indecency complaints within 180 days of receipt.

The Senate version, by contrast, contains an amendment, opposed by the White House, that would block implementation of the FCC's relaxed ownership limits.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), the bill's sponsor, worries that the media-consolidation amendment and another one tackling TV violence could bog it down. He promises to pursue "all options," including a vote on the House version: "The country is telling raunchy broadcasters, 'I'm tired of this, you've pushed me over the line.'"

Another clear line of demarcation between the bills is the final tally. The Senate's is tougher and would hike fines to as high as $1 million for a single incident, up to a cap of $3 million in a single day. The Senate's indecency fines are up to $275,000 for the first violation, $375,000 for the second, and $500,000 for the third.

The bill would also authorize the FCC to double those penalties when there are aggravating factors, such as if the show was scripted and the station had a chance to review it or if the audience was unusually large, as with the Super Bowl.

A cap of $3 million would limit sanction violations within a 24-hour period. Fines could also be applied to DJs and other on-air talent, and, as in the House version, the FCC would have to take a licensee's ability to pay into consideration.

Both bills give the FCC discretion to consider revoking a license after a broadcaster's first offense; it would be obligated to launch a revocation proceeding after a third. But the Senate's would give the FCC nine months after a complaint to decide if a violation occurred. The House bill demands action within six months.

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

Whichever bill is passed into law, the indecency frenzy has produced something rare in Washington: rapid results. And scant dissent.