Senate Votes to Raise Indecency Fines Against Broadcasters

ByABC News
May 19, 2006, 4:57 PM

May 19, 2006 — -- When Janet Jackson's costume malfunctioned at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 and exposed her for a half a second to many millions of eyes, it led immediately to a blitz of talk about indecency and regulation.

There were indignant hearings in the House of Representatives and indignant hearings in the Senate, and everyone seemed to agree -- something had to be done.

But two Super Bowls and five months after Jackson flashed America on national television, despite numerous attempts and several nearly unanimous votes, Congress has been unable to pass a law saying the fines should be hiked. The only increase in the Federal Communications Commission's indecency violation fines since the infamous 2004 Super Bowl was because of inflation, which allowed the agency to raise the penalty from $27,000 to $32,500 in September 2004.

In the latest attempt to get something done, the Senate voted unanimously late Thursday night, without fanfare, to raise the fines the FCC can levy against broadcasters by a factor of 10. Now the Senate and the House will have to work out their differences over how much the fines should be.

In the immediate aftermath of Jackson's flashing, it didn't seem as if it would take this long. The snowball of discourse on decency in broadcasting led Howard Stern to move to satellite radio, and the networks instituted several-second delays on live programming to give them a chance to weed out indecent malfunctions.

The FCC fined CBS, the network that aired the Janet Jackson costume malfunction, $550,000 -- $27,500 for each of the U.S. stations that carried the indecency.

Not enough, many thought. Bills were introduced to increase the amount of the fines -- $27,500 is a drop in the bucket for a company like CBS, the argument went. If the bill passed by the Senate had become law, the fine for Jackson's malfunction would now be more like $5 million.

That the fines for indecency have not changed does not mean Congress has not voted to increase fines. Both the House and the Senate have voted overwhelmingly since 2004 to drastically increase FCC fines.