Indecency Bill on Faster Track

WASHINGTON (THR) -- Responding to pressure from fundamentalist organizations, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is attempting to jump-start legislation that would impose a tenfold increase on fines for indecent broadcasts, congressional and industry sources said.

Frist is running a "hotline" on the version of the bill that won approval in the House last year. Hotlining is a procedure that allows the Senate to pass bills that are not expected to be controversial. Once a bill is hotlined, any senator with an objection to the bill can place a "hold" on it, which prevents the bill from being passed by unanimous consent. Hotlining also indicates that the Senate leadership is anxious to move the legislation.

Groups like the American Family Assn., headed by Rev. Donald Wildmon, have been pushing for a vote on the measure. On Tuesday, Wildmon sent an "Action Alert" to members of his organization urging them to pressure senators to take a vote.

The House version of the legislation has been languishing in the Senate Commerce Committee as the panel's chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has been unwilling to bring his version, or the House version, to a vote. Stevens has said he wanted to wait and gauge the effectiveness of a new advertising and education campaign launched by the TV industry before pushing any legislation.

In his missive, Wildmon accused Stevens of holding "this bill hostage for over 14 months" and that he "shortchanged" so-called "family and consumer groups" when he conducted three hearings on the issue.

Stevens' reluctance, the decision by the networks and TV stations to sue the FCC over the indecency regulations and the political pressure helped trigger Frist's push, industry sources said.

"If you think about it, the indecency bill fits in with the current Senate agenda with the flag burning and gay marriage bills," one industry executive said. "There's been frustration on the right with Sen. Stevens and the litigation by the broadcasters."

Last month, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, the affiliate organizations and the Hearst-Argyle Television group sued the FCC over its decision to levy fines under tougher indecency regulations that found that virtually any use of certain expletives would be considered profane and indecent, even if it was a slip of the tongue.

In March, the FCC proposed a $3.6 million fine against CBS and dozens of its affiliates as TV regulators ruled on hundreds of thousands of indecency complaints dating back to 2002. It was those proposed fines that broadcasters targeted in their suit.

Under the legislation approved by the House on Feb. 17, broadcasters who air indecent programming would be liable for fines up to $500,000 for each incident. The current maximum is $32,500 for a company. An individual now faces an $11,000 fine for an indecent utterance and would face the same fine as a company under the House-passed bill. The bill also removes an FCC provision that gave individuals a warning before issuing a fine.

In addition, the bill also requires the FCC to hold a license-revocation hearing after a third offense by a broadcaster and to respond to an indecency complaint from a viewer or listener within six months.

A Senate version of the bill, which hasn't been voted on in the Senate Commerce Committee, calls for raising the maximum fine on broadcasters for an indecency violation to $325,000, with a cap of $3 million for one day, but does not include any of the other provisions the House bill does. The House bill does not include caps.

As defined by the FCC and the courts, material is indecent if it "in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs in a patently offensive manner as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium."

While obscene speech has no constitutional protection, indecent speech does. It can be aired from 10 p.m.-6 a.m., when few children are in the audience.

Broadcasters say they are forced to guess at what constitutes indecency because the statute is so blurry. Because of the confusion and the fear of fines, some have become extremely gun-shy over programming.

Brooks Boliek writes for The Hollywood Reporter.

For more news from The Hollywood Reporter, click here.