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White House Backs Stiffer Fines for Indecent TV, Radio

The move comes as a House hearing criticizes broadcasters for coarsening the airwaves.

January 29, 2004|Jube Shiver and Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Ratcheting up pressure on broadcasters to clean up their programming, the Bush administration on Wednesday endorsed legislation that would sharply increase fines that government regulators could impose on television and radio stations for indecency.

"Broadcasters should honor their obligations by effectively monitoring language used in programming," Commerce Secretary Don Evans said in a one-page letter to the chairman of the House Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications.

For their part, broadcasters remain mum on renewed efforts in Washington to rein in the increasing use of long-taboo profanities on television and radio programs.

Release of the letter came as the House telecommunications subcommittee held a hearing Wednesday during which lawmakers criticized broadcasters and government regulators for allowing profanities and lewd programming to coarsen the airwaves.

"I believe American families should be able to rely on the fact that -- at times when their children are likely to be tuning in -- broadcast television and radio programming will be free of indecency, obscenity and profanity," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the panel.

Upton, however, was mostly preaching to the choir at the hearing.

No big broadcasting company executives or commissioners from the federal agency that oversees the industry -- the Federal Communications Commission -- testified at the hearing. And committee members complained bitterly that the FCC should lean harder on broadcasters to clean up their act.

In particular, the lawmakers criticized the FCC's decision in October not to penalize NBC for failing to edit a live Golden Globes broadcast in January of last year. During the show, Bono -- the lead singer for the rock group U2 -- said: "This is really, really [expletive] brilliant."

The same expletive was also aired during a Fox broadcast of the 2003 Billboard Music Awards. Both telecasts were delayed for airing on the West Coast, and the profanities were edited before they were broadcast there.

"I am sorry that this panel does not include witnesses from NBC and Fox because I would have liked to ask them about those broadcasts," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). "The fact that the FCC did not penalize the NBC network is curious, to say the least."

On Tuesday, Dingell sent a letter to the presidents of the four major networks, asking them to answer policy and practice questions by next Tuesday. Representatives from the networks declined to comment on Wednesday's hearing, but each said they planned to meet Dingell's deadline.

Fox spokesman Scott Groggin, however, noted that the network increased the broadcast delay on live events from seven to 10 seconds following the Billboard Awards in December, when presenter Nicole Richie swore several times. Groggin said Richie's comments were not scripted and resulted from "her choosing to attempt to shock."

Urged on by the White House and parents groups, Upton and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) have introduced a bill that would boost to $275,000 the fine that could be imposed on broadcasters for violating indecency rules. The current maximum is $27,500.

Wednesday's hearing came a day after the FCC proposed fining Clear Channel Communications $715,000 for airing indecent segments of the "Bubba the Love Sponge" program on four stations in Florida.

Shiver reported from Washington and Smith from Los Angeles.

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