WASHINGTON - The top enforcer of broadcasting's decency standards told Congress yesterday that regulators are trying to stop profanity and obscenity on the airwaves.
But skeptical lawmakers questioned the vigor of those efforts and promised to pass legislation that would increase fines for violations tenfold.
Broadcasters who use the airwaves "are not treating these licenses as a public trust, but as mere corporate commodities, and they air content replete with raunchy language, graphic violence and indecent fare," said Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House telecommunications subcommittee.
FCC fines are so small that "many stations regard the prospect of a fine as merely a potential slap on the wrist," he said.
Markey and subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, have introduced legislation to raise the maximum fine from $27,500 to $275,000 per incident.
Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans sent a letter to the subcommittee yesterday pledging the Bush administration's support for the legislation. Upton predicted the House would vote on it before spring.
David Solomon, chief of the Federal Communications Commission's enforcement bureau, said the agency "has taken indecency enforcement very seriously."
On Tuesday, the FCC took its toughest actions ever against broadcasters.
It announced a proposed record fine of $755,000 against Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation's largest radio chain, for repeatedly airing a sexually explicit program on four Florida radio stations.
The four FM stations - WRLX in West Palm Beach, WCKT in Port Charlotte, WXTB in Clearwater and WPLA in Callahan - aired episodes of Bubba the Love Sponge a total of 26 times. The company has 30 days to pay the fine or appeal.
The FCC also proposed a $27,500 fine against Young Broadcasting of San Francisco Inc. for allowing a performer from a theatrical show titled Puppetry of the Penis to briefly expose himself on a morning news show.
But several subcommittee members criticized Solomon's bureau for failing to fine NBC, a unit of General Electric Co. A year ago, when NBC broadcast the Golden Globes Awards, rock star Bono uttered a profanity. "This is really, really, f------ brilliant," he said.
Under FCC rules, companies using the public airwaves cannot broadcast obscene material at any time and cannot air indecent material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
But in October, the enforcement bureau ruled that Bono's use of the word was not obscene because he said it "as an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation."
In the past, FCC Chairman Michael Powell has suggested that regulators should not get overly involved in policing content because he did not "want government as my nanny." But in a speech at the National Press Club this month, Powell said the Bono incident went too far and he is urging the commission to overrule the enforcement bureau's decision.
Several lawmakers said the FCC should move quickly because the Bono decision had infuriated parents. "This is the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back," Rep. John M. Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, said. "The public has seen a decline in the indecency standards. The public is saying, 'Enough's enough.'"
A similar incident occurred last year during a Fox broadcast. Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican who is chairman of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, praised News Corp.'s Fox network for promising to begin using a five-second delay during live events to block indecent material.
Solomon said the FCC has begun considering revoking the broadcast licenses of radio stations that repeatedly violate indecency rules.
Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, a conservative advocacy group, told the subcommittee the FCC has been too lenient for too long. "Indecencies and obscenities are now everywhere on broadcast TV," he said.