If FCC Chairman Michael Powell and a key lawmaker get their way, it could cost broadcasters 10 times more money in fines if they air indecent programming when kids are likely to be in the audience.
Powell told the National Press Club last week he wants Congress to increase the maximum fine per violation from $27,500 today to as much as $275,000. On the same the day, House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said he would like to grant that wish and announced plans to sponsor legislation that would "substantially increase" financial penalties the FCC may levy on broadcasters for violating restrictions on indecency and obscenity.
"It is well past the time that we clean-up our airwaves," said Upton. "I am confident that, when broadcasters take a bigger hit in their wallets, they may think twice about indecency on the airwaves." He said he will introduce the legislation this week.
Indecency enforcement has long been a little-noticed duty of the FCC, but family-values groups have mobilized e-mail campaigns targeting several incidents. And during an election year, it's likely that few lawmakers will oppose efforts to rein in shock jocks and others whose material and language sometimes gets very deep blue.
Powell has been increasingly under fire from family-values groups for his Enforcement Bureau's decision not to fine NBC stations that aired rock star Bono's blurt-out at last January's Golden Globes that winning an award was "f***ing brilliant."
Powell has asked his fellow commissioners to reverse the bureau's finding that the f-word isn't indecent when used as an exclamation rather than a "patently offensive" reference to sexual intercourse. The decision is also likely to be Topic A at Jan. 28 hearing on indecency enforcement that Upton will chair.
For their part, NBC officials say Bono's swearing caught them off guard because the show aired live in the East and Central time zones. It was deleted from versions aired in Mountain and Pacific zones, and the company has since instituted a seven-second delay for live awards shows.
Family groups are pressing Solomon to make amends somewhat by hitting Fox stations for Nicole Richie's quip during the Dec. 10 Billboard Music Awards that getting cow sh** out of a Prada purse "is not so f***ing simple."
The FCC's perceived laxity prompted Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to introduce a bill last month that would make the f-word and six other terms a violation of FCC rules regardless of context.
Much of the controversy is fueled by readers of the Parents Television Council's Web site. The volume from PTC and others was so great last Monday that nearly every FCC office was hit with hundreds of e-mailed complaints.