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Marketplace Report: Boosting Fines for Indecency

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

TV and radio stations that broadcast so-called indecent material will soon face way more expensive fines. The House of Representatives today approved the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act; it was already by the Senate and the president says he'll sign it.

The legislation is an outgrowth of that Janet Jackson moment at the Super Bowl back in 2004. Tess Vigeland joins us from the MARKETPLACE newsroom.

And, Tess, there was talk in Congress at one time of imposing fines of up to half a million dollars per incident. Is that in the legislation?

Ms. TESS VIGELAND: No, it's not half a million dollars, but it is very steep. The new maximum is going to be $325,000 per incident, and that is a ten-fold increase from what it was.

Now, to give an example of what that means for broadcasters, you may remember that more than 100 CBS affiliates were fined $3.3 million this year for airing an episode of the crime series Without A Trace. That would skyrocket to $33 million.

And I spoke with Matthew Felling at the Center for Media and Public Affairs. He says the financial threat is serious.

Mr. MATTHEW FELLING (Media Director, Center for Media and Public Affairs): Will this legislation succeed in limiting content on the airwaves? Absolutely. Wouldn't America be equally protected if people merely learn how to use their V chips or parental control functions? Yes, and we'd still have that freedom of choice we'd like to talk about.

Ms. VIGELAND: But, of course, proponents of these higher fines say the content just shouldn't be out there, period.

BRAND: And I suppose broadcasters don't have much more to say about all of this, right? This is a done deal?

Ms. VIGELAND. Yeah. Not right - Yeah, it is a done deal. The four major networks are suing the FCC over all these recent indecency rulings. We'll see what the outcome is of that.

Felling points out that the networks also now have to worry about what this means for their competition.

Mr. FELLING: This is the gateway drug, pushing people from the broadcast networks to cable networks. And we're just stuck wondering if we're just going to get a whole bunch of variety shows, a lot more American Idol rip-offs and news magazines, while all the more interesting productions are pushed into a USA Network, F/X.

Ms. VIGELAND: And of course, that's because the FCC cannot regulate content on cable or on satellite. At least not yet.

BRAND: Now, the FCC recently rejected CBS's appeal of that Janet Jackson incident, pointing out that the network made enough money on advertising to cover the fines.

Now that the fines are big enough, will this actually be quite painful for the networks?

Ms. VIGELAND: Well, you're right. The FCC pointed out that the half million dollar fine over the Super Bowl incident was less than a quarter of the $2.3 million that CBS charged for each 30 second ad. Now, the Super Bowl is probably always going to make more money than the FCC could fine for an incident during the game - not that that's going to happen ever again - but that certainly is not true of most television stations. These programs, yes, they make a lot of money through advertising, but these fines could certainly add up.

And coming up later today on MARKETPLACE, we'll look at how companies try to screen their workforce for undocumented workers.

BRAND: Thank you, Tess. Tess Vigeland of public radio's daily business show, MARKETPLACE. It's produced by American Public Media. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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