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A lewd awakening

Indecency bill gets H'w'd attention

WASHINGTON — Congress finally passed an indecency bill Wednesday — and fines are poised to increase tenfold.

When President Bush signs the legislation into law, fines will jump from $32,500 to $325,000 per infraction.

Passage of the bill by a House vote of 379-35 was the final act in a long, often tortuous legislative process.

Last year the House passed an indecency bill, sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), that jacked fines up to $500,000 per infraction and would have held artists and even people calling in to radio or TV shows liable for lewd comments. Upton’s bill, originally introduced before Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004, also included the possibility of revoking broadcasters’ FCC licenses.

The Senate split over the Upton bill as many members thought it too onerous and broad. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) tried to fast-track the bill for a Senate vote, but he ran into a bipartisan wall. A Senate indecency bill with even more provisions than Upton’s never made it out of committee.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) then wrote a narrower bill, strictly raising fines. Frist successfully fast-tracked that one through the Senate last month, and the House passed it Wednesday — without attaching any provisions from the Upton bill.

“This was a choice between the lesser of two evils,” said lobbyist Erik Huey of the Venable law firm, which represents AFTRA and SAG. The bill that passed “will be less harmful to free expression over the airwaves,” he said.

“After two years Congress is sending a bill to the president that will raise broadcast indecency fines to a meaningful level,” Brownback said in a statement. “Raising the fines for abusing the public airwaves will hold broadcasters accountable for the content and consequences of their media.”

FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin, who has preached a hard line on indecency, hailed the vote.

“I welcome Congress’ decision to give the commission increased fining authority in our efforts to protect children from inappropriate programming,” he said in a statement. “Many parents are increasingly concerned about what is on television and radio today.”

National Assn. of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said, “In issues related to programming content, NAB believes responsible self-regulation is preferable to government regulation. If there is regulation, it should be applied equally to cable and satellite TV and satellite radio.”

The four major broadcast networks, realizing some form of indecency legislation was coming, have concentrated their efforts on challenging the FCC’s indecency authority in court. The case is expected to be heard some time this year.

Separately, at a breakfast meeting of cablers held right around the corner from the FCC, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he understands “the concerns of parents” about indecent broadcasts. He praised the bill the House just passed but noted, “Many people wanted government to regulate what you see” — a reference to conservative groups that lobbied heavily for more regulation of content.

Stevens has resisted such efforts.

“This is a parental problem, not governmental,” Stevens said.

He has high hopes for former MPAA topper Jack Valenti’s leadership of a $300 million campaign, launching soon, to educate parents that they already have enough controls to keep unwanted programs out of their homes. “We’ll just have to wait and see,” Stevens said.

Meanwhile, at a roundtable discussion on how to protect children from sexual or violent content, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) as well as FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Deborah Taylor Tate banded together to say more needs to be done by all parties involved.

In today’s rapidly changing media environment, “The technology is outpacing our ability to respond,” Clinton told the New American Foundation, which sponsored the roundtable. “We’ve got to look beyond the old ways of responding.”

Landrieu said she’s concerned about how to get children to see programming they should see as well as prevent them from seeing what they shouldn’t.

Echoing Clinton, Copps said parents, government and industry have to work together to address this issue, and he linked indecent content with one of his pet issues — media consolidation.

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