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House panel increases broadcast indecency penalty

WASHINGTON (BP)–A House of Representatives committee got even tougher on broadcast indecency March 3.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 49-1 for a measure increasing the maximum penalty the Federal Communications Commission may impose for indecency on television and radio, nearly doubling the amount set in a previous version of the bill. The committee increased the maximum fine to $500,000 for each violation by approving a substitute proposed by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Fred Upton, R.-Mich. The bill sets no limit on the total penalty that can be levied for ongoing violations.

The House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee approved Feb. 12 a version of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, H.R. 3717, that increased the FCC penalty tenfold from the current $27,500 maximum to $275,000. By the time the full committee considered the measure, Upton had the support of committee leaders from both parties to push the maximum to half a million dollars.

The lone member to oppose the amended bill in the full committee was Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D.-Ill.

Bipartisan support for the legislation may result in quick action by the full House.

The committee chairman, Rep. Joe Barton, R.-Texas, and Upton hope it will be considered on the House floor the week of March 8-12, a panel spokesman said. The Bush administration has endorsed Upton’s bill.

The measure would not directly affect cable TV programming. The FCC is able to regulate only broadcast television, which includes such networks as ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

Though pro-family organizations have long criticized the sexual content and obscene and profane language on prime-time television, the Super Bowl’s halftime show Feb. 1 pushed the issue into the national spotlight. Justin Timberlake’s uncovering of one of Janet Jackson’s breasts on national TV capped a controversial show and brought a deluge of criticism from many Americans, including legislators and the FCC.

Congress acted quickly, holding hearings and pushing legislation to strengthen the FCC’s enforcement of the decency standards.

The industry also has taken action.

Clear Channel Communications announced Feb. 25 a “zero tolerance policy” for indecent material. On the same day, Clear Channel, the country’s largest radio chain, removed shock jock Howard Stern’s show from its six stations that broadcast his program.

On the day before, Clear Channel fired Todd Clem, a radio host known as “Bubba the Love Sponge” The week prior to the Super Bowl, the FCC issued its largest fine ever for broadcast indecency because of material on Clem’s program. The commission proposed a fine of $755,000 against Clear Channel.
Erin Curry contributed to this article.

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