WASHINGTON — Crossing the line on TV may soon cost a lot more.
The Senate late Thursday unanimously approved a tenfold increase in broadcast indecency fines -- boosting the maximum penalty to $325,000 per violation.
The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), passed with little notice in a nearly empty chamber after an unusual parliamentary maneuver by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) that assured approval unless any senator objected.
Frist's procedural tactic broke a months-long logjam. Brownback's bill must be reconciled with a House measure before heading to the White House, where President Bush has vowed to sign legislation cracking down on indecent programming.
"It's time that broadcast indecency fines represent a real economic penalty and not just a slap on the wrist," Brownback said. "Radio and television waves are public property, and the companies who profit from using the public airwaves should face meaningful fines for broadcasting indecent material."
Bipartisan support for significantly increasing indecency fines has been growing since one of singer Janet Jackson's breasts was exposed during the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl.
The House of Representatives voted 389 to 38 in early 2005 to dramatically increase fines. But that legislation differs significantly from the Senate's: the maximum fine for each violation would be $500,000, and the Federal Communications Commission would be required to hold a license revocation hearing after three offenses by a broadcaster.
One of the main sponsors of the House bill, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), said he was confident that a deal could be struck this year.
"We'll work together, and I don't think anything necessarily is a deal-stopper," Upton said. "I think the prospects are very good that we end up with something that both sides can support."
Broadcasters oppose any increases in penalties for violations of indecency standards.
"In areas of programming content, we believe responsible self-regulation by all media companies is preferable to government regulation," said Dennis Wharton of the National Assn. of Broadcasters.
In March, the FCC fined 111 stations $32,500 -- the current maximum -- for a simulated orgy scene on the CBS series "Without a Trace." The total $3.6-million fine was a record. It has since been cut to $3.3 million. Under the Senate legislation, the total fines could have been as much as $36 million.
In June 2004, the Senate passed a similar Brownback proposal by 99 to 1 as part of a defense bill. But it was later dropped from that legislation. Brownback reintroduced his bill in January 2005, with seven Democrats joining 20 Republicans in co-sponsoring it.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) blocked the legislation. He preferred that parents use filtering technology such as the V-chip to prevent children from viewing objectionable material. Stevens said he wanted to see the results of a $300-million advertising campaign to promote the V-chip and other blocking technology.
Brownback's bill normally would be required to go through Stevens' committee. But Frist on Wednesday "hotlined" the bill, which meant it would be unanimously approved by the full Senate unless anyone objected before adjournment Thursday.