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02.21.2005
Originally featured on BroadcastEngineering.com
House votes to stiffen broadcast indecency fines

The House of Representatives approved legislation last week that would impose huge fines for airing content that government regulators deem inappropriate.

Rejecting criticism that the penalties will stifle free speech, homogenize radio and TV broadcasts, and threaten the viability of broadcasters to compete with cable, supporters of the legislation said stiff fines are needed to give “deep pocketed” broadcasters more incentive to clean up their programs and to help assure parents that their children won’t be exposed to inappropriate material, the Associated Press reported.

The measure, which passed 389-38, boosts the maximum fine from $32,500 to $500,000 for a company and from $11,000 to $500,000 for an individual entertainer. The legislation garnered broad bipartisan support from lawmakers upset about incidents like Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

The bill gives affiliates protection from fines in cases in which they air network programming that is later found to be indecent. The legislation would also force the FCC to respond to viewer complaints within six months and require the commission to hold a license revocation hearing after a broadcaster’s third offense.

“This is a penalty that makes broadcasters sit up and take notice,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee that sent the bill to the full House. “This legislation makes great strides in making it safe for families to come back into their living room.”

The White House, in a statement, said it strongly supports the legislation that “will make broadcast television and radio more suitable for family viewing.” The Senate is considering a similar bill. Any differences in the two will have to be worked out before it goes to President Bush for a signature. Last year, the two chambers were unable to reach a compromise.

Opponents told the AP they are concerned that stiffer fines by the FCC will lead to more self-censorship by broadcasters and entertainers unclear about the definition of indecent. They cited the example of several ABC affiliates refusing to air “Saving Private Ryan” because of worries that violence and profanity would lead to fines, even though the movie already had aired on network TV.

There was also concern that broadcasters will no longer be able to compete with more provocative programming available on pay television services, which are not subject to the government’s content rules.

The House bill, H.R. 310, allows the FCC to fine an individual entertainer, such as a disc jockey, without first issuing a warning, which is the case now. The FCC has never before issued such a fine.

A similar Senate bill, missing many of the provisions in the House legislation, calls for raising the maximum fine on broadcasters to $325,000, with a cap of $3 million for one day. The House bill does not include a cap.

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