The Broadcasting Buzz

Posted March 1, 2004 at 6:44pm

If Congress has its way this month, unsuspecting television viewers and radio listeners will no longer be assaulted by boobs on their tubes. That includes foul-mouthed shock jocks and racy halftime shows at major sporting events.

Indeed, newly installed House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) plans to hold his inaugural markup this week on the broadcast decency bill.

Meanwhile, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) may consider the bill as early as the week of March 9, according to a Senate GOP source.

In many ways, the issue appears to be a slam-dunk for all the politicians involved. They will get credit in an election year for helping to clean up the airwaves by getting tough with rogue broadcasters trying to push filth on wholesome families.

No more measly $27,500 fines for showing or saying something deemed by the Federal Communications Commission as indecent. Broadcasters will have to pony up $275,000 every time somebody does something inappropriate on air, under both chambers’ versions of the bill.

But unfortunately for Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and other key supporters of the legislation, it’s not necessarily going to be that easy — not when you’ve got a whole host of issues involving the FCC to deal with as well.

Case in point: media ownership rules.

Think that issue was settled by the fiscal 2004 omnibus spending bill, which gave media companies the ability to own up to 39 percent of the national market share of TV stations? Don’t be so sure.

Opponents of last year’s FCC decision to up the media ownership market share from 35 percent to 45 percent were pretty crafty in their attempts to stop it, even in the face of resistance from the White House and GOP leaders in both chambers.

In the Senate, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) got 55 members — including 12 Republicans — to pass a resolution of disapproval of the FCC rules last fall. That resolution also took aim at FCC rules allowing media conglomerates to own major newspapers and broadcast stations in the same local market.

House Members opposed to the FCC rules are still hoping to bypass the GOP leadership’s intransigence on the issue by seeking a discharge petition for the resolution or a separate bill to roll back the rules.

Then there’s a Senate Commerce-passed bill that would have halted the rules, but the bill never came to the floor because of Senate GOP leaders’ opposition to the media ownership provisions.

Plus, lawmakers in both chambers targeted the Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary appropriations bill as a vehicle to kill the rules. The House version of the bill passed overwhelmingly with the rollback language. The Senate bill had similar language but never made it to the floor.

So, understandably perhaps, the 39 percent “compromise” on the omnibus did little more than inflame these lawmakers even more, and the cross-ownership rule was not even addressed in the omnibus.

That’s why this could be the sleeper issue that muddies the decency debate, especially in the Senate, where it is easier for lawmakers opposed to what they see as rampant media consolidation to mess with the bill.

“It’s a risk,” said Brian Hart, spokesman for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), the chief sponsor of the Senate bill. “It’s something that we don’t want. … We’re hoping and pushing for a clean bill.”

But that’s not necessarily going to stop people from trying anyway.

Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt said the Senator is considering raising the issue in the Commerce committee markup and again on the floor if need be.

“Majorities in both chambers are with us,” Piatt said ominously.

Indeed, the Senate Commerce panel is full of Dorgan supporters, including Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and at least 9 of the 11 Democrats on the committee.

Upton will probably get a pass on the issue in his committee. The leading House proponent of rolling back the FCC rules, Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), is not planning on pursuing the issue when the decency bill comes up in committee this week, according to a Burr aide.

But House Democrats dissatisfied with the 39 percent provision in the omnibus may attempt to bring the issue up on the floor, with likely no success given the Republican-dominated House Rules Committee.

Media ownership isn’t the only can of worms that could be opened up during the decency debate. Broadcasters, feeling besieged by Congress, want the FCC to be able to regulate cable programming as well, so they won’t be constantly trying to one-up the racier stuff on many cable channels. But the FCC only has the authority to police the free airwaves — not the pay-for-play cable and satellite industries.

Plus, there are a number of proposals that deal directly with decency that could be offered as amendments to the bills in both chambers.

Outraged by the sight of singer Janet Jackson’s star-studded breast during the Super Bowl, some lawmakers advocate allowing the FCC to fine on-air talent like Jackson or controversial radio host Howard Stern, whose show often includes sexual content.

Others propose giving broadcasters three chances on cleaning up their act and then revoking their license if they don’t.

Amendments on both of those issues are likely to be offered this week in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Other possible amendments include making sure local stations that are forced to offer network fare aren’t penalized unjustly for airing inappropriate material, as well as expanding the definition of indecency to include gratuitous violence.