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Broadcasters, Decency Critics Meet

The broadcast industry is meeting with regulators and critics behind closed doors to discuss ways of responding to growing complaints about indecent programming.

The daylong summit comes as the Federal Communications Commission promises a crackdown and lawmakers prepare to raise the fines for indecency on over-the-air television and radio.

"I have never seen such broad consensus on an issue," said L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Parents Television Council, a conservative advocacy group. "People have just said, 'Enough is enough. These are our airwaves. You are violating a trust and we have the right to knock you off for doing this.'"

Bozell was one of several speakers addressing the broadcasters in a closed meeting Wednesday.

Another was FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who has been pressing his colleagues to start revoking the licenses of stations that repeatedly air indecent programs. He warned that regulators and lawmakers are serious about holding broadcasters accountable.

"I'm going to be for stepping up enforcement and for this commission to be credible on enforcement," Copps said. "Everybody's talking a pretty good game down here now. I will be truly convinced of our commitment when I see us send one or two of these cases for license revocation."

Broadcasters say the summit is evidence that they take the issue seriously.

"We thought it was an appropriate time for the industry to get in one room and discuss an appropriate response," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, the powerful broadcast lobby holding the meeting. "We're not oblivious to some of the concerns that have been expressed by both parents and policy-makers."

In advance of the summit, the four major networks on Tuesday announced a new advertising campaign to highlight the V-chip, which uses the voluntary TV ratings system to allow parents to block specific programs.

Federal law bars radio stations and over-the-air television channels from airing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuning in. The rules do not apply to cable and satellite channels or satellite radio.

Pressure to more intensely enforce the law has grown since the now-infamous Feb. 1 Super Bowl halftime show that ended with singer Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson's right breast to millions of TV viewers. The incident generated more than 500,000 complaints.

About a month later, the House voted to raise the maximum indecency fine to $500,000, and the Senate Commerce Committee approved similar language. The FCC has announced several large fines recently and told broadcasters that virtually any use of the f-word was inappropriate for over-the-air radio and television.

Broadcasters have been taking steps on their own. The broadcast networks began airing live programming on a time delay, and Clear Channel Worldwide, the nation's largest radio station chain, adopted a code of conduct for its personalities, suspended shock jock Howard Stern from its six stations that carried him, and paid a record $755,000 indecency fine for broadcasts by the disc jockey known as "Bubba the Love Sponge," who was fired.

Some observers say these actions infringe on free speech.

"The First Amendment was designed to protect minority rights, meaning that even if a majority of Americans find something objectionable, that does not mean that the media should just go ahead and do whatever that majority wants," said Paul Levinson, chairman of the department of communications and media studies at Fordham University.

Government watchdogs criticized the decision to keep the summit closed.

"For some reason, they don't want the public to have any information about what they're thinking about on an issue that the public is obviously engaged about," said Celia Wexler, vice president for advocacy at Common Cause, which is fighting FCC regulations allowing broadcasters to own more television stations. "If they think they have good ideas about dealing with this problem, the public wants to hear them."

Wharton said the meeting was closed "in order to really have an honest and serious discussion and dialogue."

By Jonathan D. Salant