Senate Cracks Down on Indecency

WASHINGTON, D.C. The Senate Commerce Committee voted 24-0 on Tuesday to increase penalties for broadcast indecency, approving a bill that also would restrict televised depictions of violence and temporarily freeze media ownership deregulation.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), called Tuesday’s bipartisan vote “a powerful signal to (congressional) leadership and the industry that we’re going to move a bill.” Earlier he expressed apprehension that provisions addressing ownership and cable networks could weigh down the bill, leaving it unable to pass. Senators by a one-vote margin rejected a bid to extend the legislation’s reach to expanded basic cable.

The House Commerce Committee last week on a 49-1 vote passed its version of anti-indecency legislation that envisions fines of up to $500,000, with no limit for the cumulative fine that can be assessed for a single performance broadcast on many stations. The full House is expected to pass that version soon.

The Senate version called for fines of up to $500,000 (up from the current limit of $27,500) and a cap of $3 million for repeated fines that can be assessed when one incident is broadcast on many stations. Aggravating circumstances could double those levels. Repeated violations would subject broadcasters to possible license revocation.

It was not immediately clear whether the full Senate would take up Brownback’s measure, or wait to pass the House bill, for which the Bush administration has expressed support. Lawmakers of both parties say they want to pass anti-indecency legislation this year, in the wake of a coarse Feb. 1 Super Bowl halftime show on CBS that ended with Janet Jackson’s breast exposed.

The Senate measure calls for a study of whether the V-chip effectively blocks violent programming from children, and calls for keeping off the airwaves violent programming not blocked by the V-chip during hours when children likely are watching.

The bill also calls for a one-year freeze on last year’s relaxation of media ownership rules while a study is conducted on the link between media size and broadcast indecency. A federal court has stayed the rules while it considers their legality.