A Decent Idea
By Congressman Joe Pitts
On the evening of February 1, 2004, tens of millions of viewers from around the world tuned in to watch the New England Patriots play the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl X-XXVIII.
Viewers saw a great game - close throughout, with the outcome decided by a last-second field goal. But the competition on the field that night will always be overshadowed by what happened while both teams were in their locker rooms.
It was during the game's halftime show that Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake performed a song together, resulting in Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" that exposed her breast to the millions of viewers - adults and children alike - watching at home.
Though some of us on Capitol Hill have been concerned for years about eroding standards of decency on the nation's broadcast airwaves, this incident provided the chorus of grassroots disapproval needed to focus attention on the issue in Washington.
On June 15, that overwhelming grassroots drive culminated in the signing of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, a landmark win for American families.
I had the privilege of standing with President Bush at the signing ceremony for this important legislation. The President said that parents must be the ultimate enforcers of what their children watch and listen to, but he rightly pointed out that broadcasters have an obligation to abide by decency laws too.
He told the audience, "Broadcasters have a duty to respect common decency, to take into account the public interest and to keep the public airwaves free of indecent material."
This bill provides incentive for broadcasters to do so. Current fines levied by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for violations of decency laws are limited to $32,500 per violation. But consider the resources of today's media conglomerates. The average 30-second Super Bowl ad costs $2.4 million dollars. That's $80,000 per second being paid to the broadcaster. Of course commercials for most shows don't cost that much, but nonetheless, today's multi-million dollar broadcast companies aren't deterred by the current level of fines.
This bill changes that. It enacts a tenfold increase in fines - from $32,500 to $325,000 per violation, with a maximum fine of $3 million for multiple violations. Faced with having to pay over a quarter-million dollars for a single violation, and as much as $3 million for multiple infractions, I believe broadcasters will think twice before airing indecent content.
Some argue that this amounts to a violation of the right to free speech, but that argument simply doesn't hold up when you look at what this legislation does and does not do.
What it does do is increase fines for violating the law. What it does not do is change the FCC's definition of indecent material or the manner in which fines are assessed. It also does not grant the FCC new powers to revoke broadcasters' licenses.
Any parent trying to guard what their kids watch on television and listen to on the radio knows that the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" was hardly an isolated incident. There have been numerous examples of crude, vulgar, and obscene content making its way onto the airwaves, both before Super Bowl XX-XVIII and since.
This bill says enough is enough. By insisting that real violations of the law are met with real penalties, a measure of accountability has been returned to the public airwaves and I believe America's families are better off for it.