Indecency Bill Would Overturn Ownership Rules

By: Todd Shields

(Mediaweek) The Senate today passed legislation to steeply increase fines for broadcast indecency, and added language to roll back relaxations of media-ownership laws and to potentially restrict violent programming.

The additional provisions are likely to complicate efforts to forge final congressional action on the indecency issue that drew headlines and hearings after Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed on the Feb. 1 Super Bowl broadcast.

House leaders and the Bush administration support the ownership liberalization, and the House made sure its version of the anti-indecency legislation did not address that concern. Now the two chambers will attempt to settle their differences in a closed-door conference committee before the legislation moves to President Bush, who supports steeper indecency fines.

The Senate voted 99-to-1 to increase the maximum penalty for indecent broadcasts to $275,000 from the current maximum of $27,500. Fines could rise further under special circumstances. And it accepted with virtually no discussion an amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) to roll back last year’s ownership liberalization, and by Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) to potentially restrict violent programming to hours when children are not likely to be watching.

The measure increasing fines was offered by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) who said it would “tell the broadcasters we are serious about protecting our airwaves.” Brownback’s measure was shorn of ownership and violence provisions that had earlier drawn opposition, stalling anti-indecency legislation in the Senate since early March.

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