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Bill adds bite to FCC fines

The legislation increases the maximum penalty for broadcasting indecent materialfrom $32,500 to $325,000.

Published June 16, 2006

WASHINGTON - President Bush signed legislation Thursday that will cost broadcasters dearly when programming exceeds "the bounds of decency."

At a signing ceremony for the new law increasing by tenfold the maximum fine for indecency on broadcast TV networks and commercial radio, Bush said the law will force industry figures to "take seriously their duty to keep the public airwaves free of obscene, profane and indecent material."

The law does not try to define what is indecent. The Federal Communications Commission says indecent material contains sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity. For anything it deems indecent, the FCC can now fine a broadcaster up to $325,000 per occurrence.

The law does not apply to cable or satellite broadcasts.

Approval of the bill culminates a two-year effort to get tough on sexually explicit material and offensive language after Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction."

CBS-owned stations are facing $550,000 in fines over Jackson's brief exposure of a breast during the halftime concert. The FCC recently denied a request from those stations to reconsider the fines.

The agency recently handed down its biggest fine, $3.3-million, against more than 100 CBS affiliates that aired an episode of Without a Trace that had a scene simulating an orgy.

The FCC has received increasing complaints about lewd material. It has responded by increasing the fines it has levied from $440,000 in 2003 to almost $8-million in 2004.

"The problem we have is that the maximum penalty that the FCC can impose under current law is just $32,500 per violation," Bush said. "And for some broadcasters, this amount is meaningless. It's relatively painless for them when they violate decency standards."

Detractors warn of problems in defining what is indecent and of the erosion of First Amendment rights.

[Last modified June 16, 2006, 07:15:48]

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