May 3, 2006

Senate Leader Seeks to Boost TV Decency Fines

By Jeremy Pelofsky

WASHINGTON -- 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 Wednesday.

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 Tuesday.

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.