Congress asks nets to swear off on profanity

Bill for indecency fines expected to be passed quickly

WASHINGTON — Support is growing in Congress to force TV and radio broadcasters to watch their mouths or employ the bleep button.

Several influential lawmakers on Capitol Hill predicted that a bill to increase Federal Communication Commission indecency fines tenfold would sail through Congress with White House support. If the legislation passes, the new maximum would be $275,000 per violation with a cap of up to $3 million for a continuing violation.

At a hearing of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich), who authored the bill and chairs the panel, released a letter of support from Commerce Dept. Secretary Donald Evans and said the legislation is attracting dozens of co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.

Lawmakers expressed deep concern about salacious content on TV and radio and blamed the FCC for failing to take strong enough action to take the federal indecency laws seriously.

“I call on all the networks to take to heart what we are discussing here today and review their codes of conduct, and, in the case of live broadcasts, review their time-delay procedures and redouble their efforts to make them work,” Upton said. “The American people are paying attention — believe me — and they want action.”

Federal law prohibits broadcasters from airing obscene material on the public airwaves at all times and proscribes the broadcasting of indecent content to after 10 p.m. and before 6 a.m.

In recent weeks and days, Washington solons have started to crack down on broadcasters who violate the law. The hearing comes one day after the FCC fined Clear Channel Communications for airing the show “Bubba the Love Sponge” on 26 of its stations to the tune of a $755,000 fine — the maximum $27,500 for each airing plus $40,000 for record-keeping failures. It was the largest fine for one indecency violation in the history of the FCC.

That decision comes on the heels of FCC topper Michael Powell’s attempt to overturn a ruling by the agency’s enforcement bureau, which found that NBC stations did not violate indecency laws when they aired the Golden Globe Awards in January 2003. During the awards, U2 front man Bono reacted to receiving an award by exclaiming, “This is fucking brilliant.”

In the original decision, the FCC ruled that it was not a violation because the expletive was used only once, in a “fleeting” manner and was used as an adjective, without a sexual connotation. The decision set off a storm of protest among children and family activist groups, and lawmakers reported receiving thousands of constituent complaints on the subject. The four other commissioners will likely take Powell’s lead and overturn the ruling.

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) — the chairman of the full House Energy and Commerce panel, which oversees media policy — came down hard on the nets even as he praised Fox for recently deciding to implement a five-second delay when broadcasting live events such as awards shows. Last year Tauzin supported the nets in their successful fight to convince the FCC to relax media ownership laws and late last week the powerful pol declined an offer to take over the top spot at the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

“Broadcasters have a special duty to Americans — they offer a product that comes directly into the home, the one place where families have the right not to be assaulted by uninvited and offensive sights and sounds,” he said.

During the hearing, several lawmakers said they were disappointed that no rep for the big four nets had shown up to testify and called on Upton to hold additional hearings that would include them.

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