Revelations resulting from half-time show

Analysis

February 04, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Talk of social responsibility and TV's quest for the right demographics may not grab the public consciousness like a suddenly R-rated Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake Super Bowl duet.

But as the dust settles on CBS' Sunday halftime show fiasco, media and pop culture experts say, these very topics, not the breast-baring, are what we as a society should be discussing.

"Underlying the whole mythic rape scenario that was played out for millions to see is a really base economic imperative on the part of CBS and Viacom that I don't think should be ignored," said Dr. Shirley Peroutka, who teaches popular culture at Goucher College.

For anyone who missed it, the Super Bowl flap involves singer Timberlake tearing away a section of Jackson's outfit near the end of their performance to reveal her right breast, covered only in a tiny metal ornament.

Reacting to such mounting criticism, CBS announced yesterday that it would use an expanded form of tape delay to telecast Sunday's 46th Annual Grammy Awards.

"The enhancement will include the ability to delete both inappropriate audio and video footage from the broadcast," CBS said in a written statement yesterday.

Using a five-second delay, CBS has traditionally employed procedures that allow the network to delete inappropriate audio before it airs. "This new enhancement will accomplish both audio and video," the statement said.

However, not wanting to threaten one of television's most powerful attractions, the appearance of being live, CBS declined to say how long this new delay will be.

Besides, technology is only as good or bad as those who control it, and there is a growing consensus that CBS so egregiously abandoned its responsibility as media gatekeeper that it calls into question the entire realm of American broadcasting - from the way network ownership has changed in the last two decades, to the actions of the federal agency set up 70 years ago to ensure that it operated in the public interest.

"This is clearly CBS, the fuddy-duddy network, trying to push the envelope to be perceived as a younger, edgier network like Fox," said Peroutka, referring to CBS' status as the network with the oldest demographics.

"There's an amoral, bottom-line mentality evident here with Viacom [which owns CBS] using a huge platform to try and take CBS in a more modern direction that will make them more attractive to that highly desired, but hard-to-attract demographic of young men. Apparently, anything is OK - even a scenario of a rape - if it will get young viewers," she added.

Television has always wanted young viewers, but in the past it has balanced that desire with a sense of serving the public interest.

"There is an issue of social responsibility involved here," said Bill Loving, co-author of Law of Mass Communications, a text so fundamental to the history of American television and broadcast regulation that it is now in its 10th edition.

Talking about network television as it was run by its founders from the 1930s until the mid-1980s when huge conglomerates like Viacom took over, Loving said, "There was a recognition that they operated networks that went out through the local affiliates into American homes, and that they served a public trust."

That sense of public trust - of serving as a gatekeeper to the kinds of information that flow into American homes - is what many observers feel CBS violated Sunday night. That's certainly what Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was speaking to when he said, "I am outraged by what I saw. ... Like millions of Americans, my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration. Instead, that celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt."

But while Powell announced a "swift and thorough investigation," those who study the history of the FCC have little confidence that anything will truly change as a result.

"What's to investigate? The flash of Ms. Jackson's breasts was either choreographed or it wasn't," said Dr. Dwight Teeter, a professor at the School of Journalsim and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee.

"What are they going to do, fine CBS? What will that mean to CBS and Viacom compared to all the ratings and publicity they've enjoyed as a result?" added Teeter.

Having endured criticism in recent years from lawmakers and public interest groups that the FCC has not done enough to shield the public from indecent programming on radio and television, the agency has issued rulings that have resulted in larger fines. Last month, the FCC proposed a $755,000 fine against Clear Channel Communications for airing sexually explicit material on many of its radio stations. The largest cumulative fine was $1.7 million levied against Infinity Broadcasting for various violations by Howard Stern.

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