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House Approves Tougher Broadcast Indecency Measures

Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., said, ”I am tired of hearing parents tell me how they have to cover their children’s ears.”

“Today, we’re saying enough is enough.”

The bill, called the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004, would give the Federal Communications Commission the authority to fine broadcasters as much as $500,000 per violation, substantially higher from the present maximum fine of $27,500. The fine for a performer would jump from $11,000 to $500,000 for deliberately violating FCC decency regulations.

Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., said the bill will give the FCC “the ammunition it needs” to enforce indecency standards.

The House action comes in the wake of the now-infamous Feb. 1 Super Bowl halftime performance, in which singer Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed on national television during primetime.

The bill “makes great strides in our effort to clean up the broadcast airwaves and return them to the decent Americans of our country,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Commerce Committee.

The House bill received a strong endorsement from President Bush, the Associated Press reported.

Under the House measure, the FCC would also have to hold a hearing to determine if a broadcaster’s license should be revoked after three indecency violations. It also would require the agency to address indecency complaints within 180 days.

Despite public demands to clean up the nation’s airwaves, several officials have raised concerns that the pending bill could undermine free speech rights.

“This is going to become a very dark day in American history. We’re going down the slippery slope of limiting our Constitution and the protections that it gives to the American people,” Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., told Reuters. Ackerman added: “To impose a fine on speech you don’t like..has a freezing-out effect where people will be afraid to speak out.”

But, the future of the House measure remains uncertain since a similar bill moving through the Senate possesses major differences that FCC officials said could obstruct its passage. The Senate’s bill includes provisions to put on hold sweeping media ownership changes adopted by the FCC last year and orders the FCC to study ways to protect children from violence on television.

Several FCC attorneys told the AP Thursday that the House bill has a better chance of getting signed into law by President Bush than the Senate bill, because of its ownership review clause introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Meanwhile, several broadcast companies — under pressure from family groups and lawmakers — have voluntarily initiated their own measures to improve decency standards.

Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation’s largest radio station chain, recently announced new standards for its programs, indefinitely suspended broadcasts of the “shock jock” Howard Stern show on the six stations that carried it and fired radio personality Todd Clem, known as Bubba the Love Sponge, whose sexually explicit programs brought the San Antonio-based company a record $755,000 fine.

Clear Channel also invested in equipment to provide a 20-second delay for its live broadcasts, a precautionary step many broadcasters said they would implement to prevent the airing of indecent material.

Still, the radio company may not be avoiding all risk: Clear Channel signed controversial radio jock Michael Savage to the lineup at its Houston station. MSNBC fired Savage last summer after he referred to a caller to his weekend cable TV show as a “sodomite” and told him he should “get AIDS and die.”

For its part, Viacom Inc. — parent company of the CBS TV network that aired the controversial Super Bowl halftime performance — has promised a new zero tolerance policy going forward. Viacom also owns Infinity Broadcasting, which operates 185 radio stations nationwide and owns and distributes Stern’s show. Infinity Broadcasting has also adopted a zero tolerance policy.

Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents independently owned radio and TV stations, said Thursday the industry prefers voluntary initiatives to tougher government regulation.

“Voluntary industry initiatives are far preferable to government regulation when dealing with programming issues,” Fritts said. “NAB does not support the bill as written, but we hear the call of legislators and are committed to taking voluntary action to address this issue.” Fritts also noted that the industry has already scheduled an indecency summit for March 31.

Federal law and FCC rules restrict TV and radio broadcasters from airing content that refers to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to be tuned in. Cable and satellite TV and satellite radio do not face such restrictions, though Congress has debated whether decency standards should extend to cable and satellite.

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