House Passes Increase in FCC Fines

Twenty-eight months after Janet Jackson sparked a renewed outcry to clamp down on TV- and radio-borne smut, Congress has passed legislation to do so.

The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bill that would raise the maximum fine for indecent broadcasts to $325,000 -- ten times more than the current limit of $32,500. The 379-35 vote follows passage of the same bill in the Senate and sends the measure to President Bush, who will likely sign it into law.

Once that happens, broadcasters will face a bigger hit to the bottom line should they let a curse word or overly realistic sex scene onto their airwaves between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. It's a move that conservative watchdogs such as the Parents Television Council have been pressing for some time.

The flashpoint for the renewed debate was Jackson's Super Bowl halftime performance in February 2004, in which viewers caught a brief glimpse of her exposed breast at the end of a duet with Justin Timberlake. The Federal Communications Commission fined CBS $550,000 for the incident -- the then-maximum amount of $27,500 for each of the 20 affiliates owned by the network.

CBS is also facing a fine of more than $3 million for a broadcast of "Without a Trace" that featured a scene depicting a teen sex party.

Bills to increase the FCC's fining power have come up several times in Congress over the past two years, but before this week they all went down when the House and Senate couldn't reconcile their respective versions. The $325,000 maximum fine is lower than the $500,000 some House members had hoped for, but its members accepted the lower number to get the bill passed.

The bill also caps the fine for a "continuing violation" at $3 million.

The definition of what, exactly, constitutes indecency will be left to the FCC, which has sent some mixed messages on the subject in recent years. The commission opted not to fine ABC for a Veterans Day 2004 broadcast of "Saving Private Ryan" that included numerous profanities, even though a previous ruling had found that any utterance of the words "s**t" or "f**k" was indecent.

More than 60 ABC affiliates pulled the broadcast of the Oscar-winning war movie for fear of being fined.