The Senate Commerce Committee voted Tuesday to raise the maximum fine for indecent programming from $27,500 to $500,000. The House Commerce Committee approved a similar increase last week, and the full House is expected to take up the measure Thursday.
Senators diverged from their House counterparts by also voting to delay the Federal Communications Commission's new broadcast ownership rules from taking effect until investigators at Congress' General Accounting Office can study any relationship between media consolidation and indecency.
The rules, temporarily blocked by a federal appeals court, would make it easier for companies to own newspapers and broadcast stations in the same community.
"The evidence suggests that more of the complaints are filed against the larger organizations," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., a sponsor of the measure. "We don't need fewer voices in this country controlling the media. The growth of concentration in radio and television has been alarming in recent years."
The proposed moratorium would not affect a provision in January's giant spending bill that allowed media organizations to own TV stations reaching 39 percent of the viewing public, up from 35 percent.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell said the differences between the House and Senate bills will slow progress toward raising the indecency fines because lawmakers will have to iron out their disagreements.
"You're seeing more and more stuff added to the legislation," Powell said Wednesday. "That decreases the possibility of it becoming law."
Lawmakers have criticized broadcasters for airing what they say is increasingly coarse programming that can be seen or heard by children. The effort to crack down on such shows gained new momentum last month when singer Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson's breast to 90 million viewers watching the Super Bowl halftime show.
"Americans, especially parents, are fed up with content producers and broadcasters who have for too long ignored regulations that are designed to keep a standard of decency and protect children on the public's airwaves," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a sponsor of the bill.
Even some broadcasters have endorsed the higher penalties.
"It's hard to get the attention of a broadcaster in a major market with a fine of $27,500," said Birney Blair, a current director and retired general manager of NBC affiliate KHQ-TV in Spokane, Wash.
The Senate bill would count each utterance rather than each program as a single indecency violation, and cap the maximum fine for a 24-hour period at $3 million. It also would direct the FCC to begin license revocation procedures after a third indecency violation.
The FCC already has said it will begin fining broadcasters for each indecent incident.
The rules prohibit over-the-air radio and TV stations from airing material that refers to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuned in.
The committee rejected a provision to apply broadcast indecency standards to cable and satellite channels. The FCC currently has no power to regulate those channels, which are available to the 85 percent of the 108.4 million U.S. households with televisions.
Also on Tuesday, the nation's largest radio chain, San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications announced it had bought equipment to provide for up to a 20-second delay for live broadcasts. The chain earlier had announced it would pay a record $755,000 fine for broadcasts of "Bubba the Love Sponge," which the FCC found indecent, and fired the disc jockey responsible.
The bills are S. 2056 and H.R. 3717.