WASHINGTON — Fed up with obscene language on the public airwaves, Federal Communications Commission topper Michael Powell is determined to hit programmers where it hurts: the pocketbook.
On Wednesday Powell called on Congress to increase agency fines for indecency violations 10-fold to crack down on use of the F-word and other expletives on free, over-the-air TV and radio. The maximum current fine for a single violation is $27,500 per station that airs the obscenity, and Powell said Congress has not upped the penalties in decades.
“Some of these fines are peanuts,” Powell told a National Press Club lunch. “They’re just a cost of doing business. That has to change.”
Not even an hour after Powell issued the call, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of an Energy and Commerce subcommittee, announced plans to drop a bill to “substantially increase” FCC penalties for indecency violations. News of the bill comes one day after Upton skedded a Jan. 28 hearing examining the FCC’s record on broadcast indecency rules titled “Can I say that on TV?”
The developments also come the day after Powell circulated a draft among his colleagues overturning a controversial October decision by the FCC’s enforcement bureau. The bureau decided that U2 front man Bono’s use of the F-word on the Golden Globes last year was not indecent, so NBC stations that aired it were not forced to pay any fines.
“This is really, really fucking brilliant,” Bono exclaimed after receiving an award.
The enforcement bureau argued that Bono’s remark was not indecent because it was “fleeting” and used as an adjective, rather than in a sexual context.
But Wednesday Powell said that the “FCC says it’s not OK” to use the F-word, and FCC sources believe he will have no problem getting the votes of at least two commissioners to overturn the original Golden Globes decision.
Powell said he believed that raunchy language and behavior is increasing on television and radio and recently “a line has been crossed.”
“I personally believe that it is abhorrent to use profanity at a time when we are very likely to know that children are watching TV,” he said. “It is irresponsible for our programmers to continue to try to push the envelope on a reasonable set of policies that try to legitimately balance the interests of the First Amendment with a need to protect our kids.”
Since the Golden Globes uproar, several members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have written bills calling for stiffer penalties for indecency violations.
Attorneys who represent broadcasters believe the problem is not the fines, but the vague nature of the indecency standard, which leaves it open to a wide range of interpretations.
“The inherent problem is not with the amount of the FCC fines but with the indecency standard itself,” said Kathleen Kirby, a lawyer with Wiley, Rein and Fielding. “It’s vague, it’s uncertain, it’s difficult to apply.”