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FCC considers widening its reach

The television and radio industries are about to come under renewed attack over sex, violence and profanity in their programming, both in Congress and at the FCC, the New York Times reported last week.

Lawmakers and Kevin J. Martin, the new FCC chairman, have proposed a broad expansion of indecency rules, which were significantly toughened last year. They are also looking for significant fine increases and new procedures that could jeopardize the licenses of stations that repeatedly violate the rules.

Martin, along with some senior lawmakers, including Commerce Committee Senator leader Ted Stevens (R-AK), have suggested it may be time to extend the indecency and profanity rules to cable and satellite television providers.

Organizations opposing what they consider indecent programming have joined forces with consumer groups that have been trying to tighten regulation over the cable industry and force it to offer consumers less expensive à la carte services.

Some of the anti-indecency groups see à la carte services as a way of helping consumers block out programming they consider indecent. Martin and Commissioner Michael J. Copps have consistently been among the most aggressive members of the agency on indecency issues.

Lawyers for cable companies told the Times that any effort to impose indecency standards on paid programming would violate the First Amendment.

Meanwhile, broadcasters have been slow to respond to the new climate. The TV networks and affiliates have filed papers with the commission seeking a rehearing on three major indecency cases: the Janet Jackson incident at the Super Bowl; Bono’s use of a profanity at the Golden Globe Awards; and a racy episode of FOX’s “Married by America.”

The agency however has sat on those appeals, and may not issue rulings anytime soon. As a practical matter, the inaction by the commission has prevented the networks from taking the matter to court. And for now, at least, the courts are widely viewed as the last hope for the broadcasters.

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