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Committee rejects cable indecency bill, approves violence curb

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Broadcasting    

Committee rejects cable indecency bill, approves violence curb

  • The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee narrowly rejected an amendment that would have given the FCC the authority to regulate cable TV broadcasts, but it approved provisions to increase the penalties for indecency and move violent programming to after 10 p.m.

March 10, 2004 — The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday came one vote shy of vastly increasing the Federal Communications Commission’s authority. Defeated 12-11, an amendment to the proposed Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act would have empowered the FCC to regulate cable television broadcasts.

The Commerce Committee did approve amending certain provisions of the act, including more severe penalties for indecency violations and allowing the FCC to fine individuals as well as broadcasters. The committee also conditionally approved an amendment that would allow violent programming to be aired only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) proposed the cable amendment, which would have allowed the FCC to regulate cable and satellite television programming — on such stations as MTV and ESPN — but not channels viewers choose to pay additionally for, such as HBO and Showtime.

John Dunbar, project manager for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit public policy organization specializing in government accountability, said the proposal would have had a dramatic effect on broadcasting.

“Ninety percent of people get their television through cable,” Dunbar said. “I don’t think there’s a question that there would be an effect on the dissemination of content in television if a muzzle was placed on cable broadcasters.”

Sponsored by Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), the so-called “safe harbor” from violence amendment is contingent on the results of an ongoing FCC study that is gauging the effectiveness of content-blocking technology, such as the V-chip, in television sets. If the study finds such technology insufficient in warning parents about specific programs, the amendment will be added to the bill.

According to Andy Davis, spokesman for Hollings, the amendment does not extend to violent content imperative to the truthful depiction of history, such as the movie “Schindler’s List,” he said. Davis added that news broadcasts would also be exempt.

The Commerce Committee’s unanimous approval of the indecency penalty provision means — if approved by the full Senate and signed by President Bush — broadcasters in violation of the indecency rule will have to pay a minimum fine of $275,000 for a first offense, $375,000 for a second offense and $500,000 for a third.

The House of Representatives last week added a more severe increase in its version of the bill, calling for a first-time fine of $500,000 and the possible revocation of the broadcaster’s license. The current fine for indecency is $27,500.

The Senate committee also approved a provision that would allow the FCC to fine individuals who knowingly commit indecent acts on the air, in addition to fining the station affiliates and broadcast companies that air the performance. For instance, Janet Jackson would have conceivably been fined for the brandishing of her breast on CBS’s Feb. 1 airing of the Super Bowl halftime show.

Tom Carpenter, national director of news and broadcast at the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in New York, said the provision is an ill-conceived idea.

“This is a problematic amendment,” he said. “This raises First Amendment issues for the artists that are speaking the words to be fined for the decisions that media companies make.”

The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which was authored by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, is scheduled for debate on the House floor tomorrow, March 11.

(H.R. 3717) LH

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