WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush on Thursday signed into law legislation that raises fines tenfold for radio and television broadcasters that violate U.S. decency standards by airing extensive profanity or sexual content.
The new law, which boosts fines to as much as $325,000 per violation from $32,500, could help congressional Republicans woo conservatives in a tough election year as they have faced ebbing support from key core constituencies.
The Christian Coalition had placed legislation to increase the fines as the No. 5 item on its 2006 legislative agenda. The new law also caps any continuing violations from an incident at $3 million.
The drive for higher fines came when pop singer Justin Timberlake ripped off part of duet partner Janet Jackson's costume and briefly exposed her breast during the 2004 Super Bowl football halftime entertainment show, which aired on the CBS television network.
Broadcasters vowed to clean up their acts and 20 CBS stations owned by the network, which helped to produce the halftime show, were fined $550,000 in total by the Federal Communications Commission, which is charged with enforcing the standards.
BUSH: PARENTS FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE
While Bush said that parents are the first line of defense for monitoring what their children listen to and watch, he added that broadcasters have a responsibility as well.
"This law will ensure that broadcasters take seriously their duty to keep the public airwaves free of obscene, profane and indecent material," Bush said at a signing ceremony with lawmakers who sponsored the bill and the five FCC commissioners.
Bush said the old maximum fine was a problem because "for some broadcasters, this amount is meaningless."
Television and radio broadcasters are barred from airing obscene material and are limited from broadcasting indecent material between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., times when children are likely to be watching.
The agency has defined indecency as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities."
Those restrictions do not apply to cable or satellite services. The exclusion prompted radio shock jock Howard Stern to move his show to satellite radio to avoid the federal regulations since his antics led to fines against stations that aired his show.
The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents hundreds of local television and radio broadcast stations, said "responsible self-regulation is preferable to government regulation."
Also in the audience at the signing ceremony was Brent Bozell whose Parents Television Council has pushed the FCC to crack down on broadcasters. Members of his organization have flooded the agency with form e-mails complaining about television shows.
"We hope that the hefty fines will cause the multibillion
dollar broadcast networks finally to take the law seriously," Bozell said in a statement.