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01.16.2004
Originally featured on BroadcastEngineering.com
FCC’s Powell wants to boost fines for obscenities

FCC Chairman Michael Powell last week proposed a tenfold increase in the fines that can be imposed on broadcasters for indecent programming. The current maximum levy is $27,500, which Powell termed as “peanuts” for large media companies.

“They’re just a cost of doing business,” Powell told a National Press Club luncheon. “That has to change.”

Such a change would require congressional approval. It comes in an election year amid conservative criticism of the FCC for a ruling last October (an expletive uttered by the musician Bono on a network TV program was not indecent because it was used as an adjective rather than to describe a sex act).

Congress plans a hearing this month on broadcast indecency. Broadcasters are trying to compete with coarser cable programming and are targeting young men, who are coveted by advertisers and considered less likely to be offended by explicit language.

Under FCC rules and federal law, terrestrial broadcasters cannot air obscene material at any time, and cannot air indecent material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The FCC defines obscene material as describing sexual conduct “in a patently offensive way” and lacking “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

There are no such requirements for subscription television channels, which do not use the public airwaves for transmission. Some critics say media consolidation has contributed to the use of stronger language on the airwaves. They argue programming decisions increasingly are being made by media company officials who have no connection to the communities they serve.

Powell, however, argued that broadcasting has simply become more competitive. But rather than spawning better programming, “it’s a race to the bottom,” he said.

For more information visit www.fcc.gov.

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