WASHINGTON – Some members of Congress applauded Clear Channel Radio Thursday for suspending shock-jock Howard Stern and firing Todd Clem,known as “Bubba the Love Sponge.”
“I am no fan of Howard Stern,” said Rep. Fred Upton,R-Mich.,at a Capitol Hill hearing. “I don't think what he said earlier this week is a whole lot different than what he's been saying all these years – why didn't this happen earlier?”
Clear Channel dropped Stern from six radio stations because of a live discussion that included sexually explicit language. The company fired Clem after the FCC proposed fining the company for comments Clem made that the agency said were indecent.
Upton,who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet,asked Clear Channel's president and chief executive officer,John Hogan,about the actions.
Hogan did not say why his company has let Stern continue to broadcast until now,but he said the company is going in a different direction.
“I don't think he has changed his tune,but we have changed ours,” Hogan said.
ABC television has also changed its tune. For the first time in the 76-year history of the Academy Awards,the network will use a five-second delay during Sunday's broadcast so it can delete offensive material,said President Alex Wallau.
The hearing gave members a chance to discuss the “Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004,” with broadcasting officials representing ABC,Fox,NBC,Clear Channel,Paxson Communications Corp. and Pappas Telecasting Cos.
All six broadcast witnesses said they supported the bill as written.
The bill would increase the maximum fine that the Federal Communications Commission could levy for profanity and obscenities on TV and radio to $275,000 per violation from $27,500, but some members are concerned the amount is not high enough.
“These celebrities can afford a $275,000 fine. In fact,they might even see it as an investment for publicity,” said Rep. Gene Green,D-Texas.
Hogan apologized and said he was “embarrassed” about the material that Clear Channel aired. He said the company is planning a “Responsible Broadcasting Initiative” that would include company-wide training about indecency and FCC regulations. He said contracts will ensure performers share the financial responsibilities for indecent material.
As for holding talent responsible for fines,Gail Berman,president of entertainment at Fox,said the company doesn't want “to create an environment where talent is afraid to show up.” But she said individuals need to be informed of their responsibilities.
While the FCC has the ability to fine,in addition to the power to revoke a station's license,Rep. Edward Markey,D-Mass.,said the “rare and paltry fines have become nothing more than a joke.” He said it is necessary to have a comprehensive,industry-wide campaign to reduce indecency.
Rep. Heather Wilson,R-N.M.,said it is hard to raise “G-rated kids in an R-rated world.”
Markey said he wants networks to superimpose content ratings on television screens more often. Those voluntary ratings are customarily displayed once at the beginning of a program.
Markey asked broadcast representatives if they would display the TV ratings icon at the beginning of the show and after each commercial break and add an audio warning. He said audio is important in case a parent is out of viewing range.
Lowell Paxson,chairman and CEO of Paxson,said his stations only needed “family-friendly icons” for its programs,with the exception of this week when the company aired the making of Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ.” But he said advisories were run before the show and after each commercial.
Showcasing the rating is “not at present our plan,” said Berman,but the company is changing the icon it uses. Mackey fired back by saying many tune into a show halfway through,and it would be helpful to display the rating throughout.
Berman said Fox “will absolutely consider it,” and the other representatives said they would do so as well.
Rep. Christopher Cox,R-Calif.,said many times people can't tell the difference between a broadcast program and one on cable. Cable television is not regulated by the FCC and does not have to meet decency standards.
Markey said cable subscribers need to be better educated on the tools available to them,such as blocking certain channels.
Cox said the impact of broadcasting on children is a problem even when they aren't watching. “For many people,turning it off is not enough,” Cox said.
He said he was wrestling with his 5-year-old Wednesday and got on the couch and said,“Halftime!” His son ripped his T-shirt and said “Halftime show!” even though Cox said he did not see the Super Bowl and Janet Jackson's famous “wardrobe malfunction.”
Berman said Fox is partnering with Thomson/RCA,which makes television sets,in a national print campaign to help educate parents about the “underutilized” V-chip to shield children from indecency. Parents can use the V-chip to block certain shows based on their ratings.
“If you all promoted the V-chip like you all promote a new show,we'd be in great shape,” Markey said.
The full committee is expected to mark up the bill next week.