The FCC's action yesterday against TV stations for airing dirty words and pictures could fuel Congress's interest in increasing fines.

As TV broadcasters absorb the latest FCC’s anti-indecency blow—about $4 million in new fines—they should consider that it may soon get worse—15 times worse.

Thanks to aggressive anti-indecency groups like the Parents Television Council and the American Family Association, Congress is working toward making those indecency fines far more painful.

The House has already passed legislation upping the maximum fine for an indecent utterance or image from $32,500 to $500,000 and requiring the FCC to hold a license revocation hearing after a station’s third infraction.

Now it’s the Senate’s turn to act. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) promises to move a television indecency bill this spring. It’s unclear how far Stevens wants the FCC fines to go. It’s believed the number could range from $275,000 to $500,000.

There is talk that the Senate version may not contain a license revocation provision. And it may include a break for small broadcasters, a sliding scale with smaller fines for smaller markets.

Affiliates are hoping that perhaps they will get some immunity from network programming since they have no idea what the network is going to send them. Details on the legislation remain sketchy.


But one thing is certain. Yesterday’s FCC’s indecency action won’t help the broadcasters’ cause on Capitol Hill. The press reports and the FCC’s detailed descriptions of what it found to be indecent are even now circulating among the lawmakers and their staffs.

The anti-indecency zealots will use the FCC action to reinforce congressional sentiment that broadcast indecency is out of control and that TV stations need to be punished more severely.

With example after example of “indecent and profane” television programming cited by the commission, it wasn’t broadcasters’ best day. It’s not easy defending the broadcast of a pool party featuring a notorious former porn star cavorting with half-naked women. Not one of The WB’s best moments.

Broadcasters’ representatives in Washington are, of course, trying to head off the legislation. They are launching a public awareness campaign in conjunction with the cable, satellite, motion picture and consumer electronics industries. Backed by $300 million in air time, it is aimed at educating parents about the V-chip and other blocking technologies. Broadcasters are also making sure every senator and key staffers see a live demonstration of how the V-chip and other blocking technology work.

“We believe responsible self-regulation is preferable to government regulation in areas of program content. If there is going to be regulation it should apply equally across all media platforms,” says NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

Will Stevens’s bill apply to cable and satellite? Senate insiders tell me it’s unlikely. Including cable and satellite would make the measure more susceptible to a court challenge, they say. It would also ratchet up opposition to the measure.

Still, broadcasters might be able to dodge an indecency bullet. Time is on the industry’s side. Congress won’t really be around much since it’s an election year. When it is in session, Stevens’s Senate Commerce Committee may be preoccupied with telecom reform legislation.

Then again, it is an election year. A vote against indecency might look good to the folks back home.

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