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House Approves Increase in FCC Fines for Indecency

June 7, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: The price of so-called indecency, broadcast over the airwaves, is getting a lot more expensive.

Today, the House of Representatives is authorizing the Federal Communications Commission to fine over-the-air television and radio broadcasters up to $325,000 for violating decency standards. That’s a tenfold increase over previous penalties.

The Senate passed the bill last month, and President Bush is expected to sign the measure.

The episode that launched this congressional action was the now-infamous Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, which was broadcast by CBS.

The new fines will not apply to satellite or cable stations that are often available side by side the over-the-air networks on most cable and direct satellite services. The FCC only has jurisdiction over the traditional broadcasters.

And joining me to discuss the new law is Jeremy Pelofsky, who covers telecommunication and media policy for Reuters.

Welcome to you.

JEREMY PELOFSKY, Reuters Telecommunication Correspondent: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, what programming and what hours are covered by this?

JEREMY PELOFSKY: Well, it’s only, as you said, over-the-air programming. It’s your broadcast channels, your FOX, NBC, CBS, and ABC, PBS, and those sort of — that you receive over your general TV without any antenna — or with an antenna, no cable or satellite.

It only applies between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. that you cannot broadcast indecent content. Obscene content is banned all the time over the air.

Fines have increased upto $325,000

JEFFREY BROWN: So the main thing here, new thing here is the size of the fines, and it clearly intended as a deterrent?

JEREMY PELOFSKY: Correct. And there are some who would question whether it would actually act as a sufficient deterrent because the networks and some of the bigger broadcast stations earn millions of dollars in quarterly profits.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how does the process work here? The fines could be levied against both networks and their smaller, the local stations, including some small stations.

JEREMY PELOFSKY: Sort of. Some of the networks own TV stations themselves, so the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, which is charged with enforcing these regulations, cannot go after the networks themselves but only the stations, whether it's radio or TV.

And so a complaint would come in to the FCC from someone in the public. Anyone can file a complaint at the agency and the agency would review it, potentially send out a letter of inquiry, review the facts of the case, and then make a decision.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have there been, in fact, more complaints in the last few years?

JEREMY PELOFSKY: Well, ever since the Janet Jackson episode, they certainly have skyrocketed, but there has been some analysis out there that shows that most of these complaints are coming through e-mail-generated systems from parents groups, like the Parents' Television Council and the Christian Coalition.

Who is pushing these fines?

JEFFREY BROWN: Are they, in fact -- I mean, who is pushing this? We keep talking about the Janet Jackson incident. What then happened? Was it Congress, was it the FCC, was it outside groups, like the ones you mentioned?

JEREMY PELOFSKY: Well, it's a little bit of all of that. There was a tremendous outrage registered after the Janet Jackson incident, but the fines legislation -- there was fines legislation prior to that incident. It just did not get very much traction, so the Janet Jackson incident absolutely pushed it ahead and really put a lot of steam behind it to move it forward.

And it's taken a couple years to get there. And it's a much narrower bill than originally had been crafted, but it's still, through the work of the parents groups, some of the lawmakers, and despite heavy lobbying by the broadcasters and the networks against it, it ended up going through.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that's what I was going to ask you next. What was their argument, the broadcasters and the networks?

JEREMY PELOFSKY: Well, they say, you know, CBS apologized for the Janet Jackson episode, said they didn't know about it. The other broadcasters along with them said that they would clean up their act. Some of them have included tape delay now.

They say, "We can fix this problem. We don't need government regulation. But if you do decide to keep regulating us or make it harsher, you should incorporate cable and satellite services that are out there."

There is no definition of indecency

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, that was not in here, that is still not in here, in spite of some in the House wanted to go that route, correct?

JEREMY PELOFSKY: Well, there were some in Congress that definitely wanted to consider that route because some Americans today do not differentiate, with the proliferation of all these channels on cable and satellite, do not differentiate between broadcast over the air and cable and satellite.

So the concern was, well, consumers don't understand it, then do they really know -- should these protections be expanded?

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in speaking of understanding it, the other thing that's not in the bill is any definition of indecency, correct?

JEREMY PELOFSKY: That is correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: That is still left to the FCC and the courts?

JEREMY PELOFSKY: Yes, it is. And that is something that the FCC says, "Look, the standard has been clear." The FCC chairman, Kevin Martin, said in April to a convention of broadcasters: Look, it's been out there for 20-plus years. You guys know what the words are. You know what the lines are. There shouldn't be any problem here.

And the broadcasters say: Well, hang on. There are a lot of different conflicting decisions that you have made. We don't really feel that you have sufficiently told us where those lines are.

Some cases end up in court

JEFFREY BROWN: And some of these cases do end up in court?

JEREMY PELOFSKY: Yes. We're going to probably see a court battle in the coming months. There were several cases that were handed down by the FCC earlier this year. The broadcast stations and the networks have gone to court to challenge some of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Jeremy Pelofsky of Reuters, thanks very much.