May 3, 2006

US Senate leader seeks to boost TV decency fines

By Jeremy Pelofsky

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill
Frist plans to ask the Senate to vote to boost fines on
broadcast television, radio stations and entertainers for
violating decency standards, according to an e-mail obtained on

A parents group earlier this week criticized Senate
Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens for failing to act more
than a year after the House of Representatives approved a bill
that would increase fines to as much as $500,000 per violation
from $32,500.

Frist, a likely contender for the 2008 Republican
presidential nomination, plans to ask his colleagues if they
have objections to considering the House measure, a Senate
procedure known as hotlining, effectively bypassing the
Commerce Committee.

"The Leader will soon hotline the House decency bill, which
has been pending on the Senate Calendar," Commerce Committee
Chief of Staff Lisa Sutherland said in an e-mail to staff on

The committee has held hearings on television indecency but
Stevens, an Alaska Republican, has instead decided to give the
television industry more time to clean up its act before
considering the House measure or a Senate bill.

A spokesman for Stevens had no immediate comment.

Federal regulations bar broadcast television and radio
stations from airing obscene material and restrict indecent
material, such as sexually explicit discussions or profanity,
to late-night hours when children are less likely to be
watching or listening.

After pop singer Janet Jackson briefly exposed her breast
during football's 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, lawmakers and
parents groups such as the Parents Television Council (PTC)
demanded higher fines to prevent decency violations.

The Federal Communications Commission fined 20 CBS Corp.
television stations $550,000 for the incident. CBS apologized,
but some parents groups have argued that the current fines are
not enough of a deterrent to broadcasters who earn billions of
dollars in revenue annually.

CBS challenged the fine. The four major television networks
-- ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, and their affiliates -- have also
challenged in court the constitutionality of other FCC
decisions that found stations violated decency standards by
airing profanity.

After those challenges, pressure has been mounting on Frist
to move the House bill since the Senate committee had not acted
on legislation, according to one congressional aide, speaking
on the condition of anonymity.

Stevens' office has also been receiving many calls from
constituents in recent days.

"Why does Sen. Stevens want to be known as the one who
refused to raise fines against multibillion-dollar corporations
that routinely violate common-sense decency standards with
offensive material?" PTC President Brent Bozell said earlier
this week.

The television industry has countered that it has
introduced brief tape delays to avoid incidents like the
Jackson affair and to block expletives from reaching the air.

The industry also plans a $300 million advertising campaign
to better educate parents about how they can block channels and
shows they find inappropriate.