Powell recommends fines for CBS

Halftime could cost company $550,000

July 01, 2004|By BLOOMBERG NEWS SERVICE

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell has recommended that Viacom Inc.'s CBS unit be fined $550,000 for airing the Super Bowl halftime show at which Janet Jackson's breast was exposed, FCC officials said.

The fine, if approved by the four other FCC commissioners, would be the highest ever imposed by regulators on television stations. The Democratic commissioners are likely to object that the penalty isn't high enough, and Powell may be prepared to compromise, said the two officials, who asked not to be named.

Following a record half-million complaints about the Super Bowl show, Congress and the FCC promised to step up penalties against broadcasters that air indecent content. Both the House and Senate have passed bills increasing the maximum fines for indecency, and Powell has said he plans about two dozen cases against broadcasters.

During the Feb. 1 show, watched by 90 million viewers, singer Justin Timberlake reached across Jackson's leather outfit and pulled away a chest covering. The halftime program was produced by Viacom's MTV music network.

Powell recommended that the 20 CBS-owned stations be fined the maximum amount of $27,500 each, the officials said. The Super Bowl show also was aired by more than 200 independently owned stations that are affiliated with the No. 1 TV network. Powell recommended that they not be penalized at all.

CBS spokeswoman Susan Duffy declined comment yesterday, as did David Fiske, a spokesman for Powell.

"If this turns out to be true, it's an important recommendation for several reasons - the first of which is that it would be the highest fine ever levied against television by the FCC," said Douglas Gomery, professor of media history and economics in the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"The recommendation would also be important because the FCC is notorious for doing nothing about TV. It would be especially ironic with this FCC, which came in on a platform of deregulation and is now so actively involved in policing the airwaves for indecency," Gomery added.

New York-based CBS can object to the fine in an attempt to sway FCC officials before they make a final decision. It also can challenge the fine in court.

Powell's recommendation said Viacom bears responsibility for the content it airs and should have checked the performers' plans in advance, officials said.

The fine will be only the third ever imposed against TV stations, FCC officials said. Most indecency fines have been levied against radio networks such as Clear Channel Communications Inc. and Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting for material aired by shock jocks.

Powell's recommendation is likely to be criticized by Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. They may contend that the fine isn't high enough, especially when compared with the $2.25 million charged by CBS for a 30-second advertising spot at the Super Bowl, officials said.

The Democratic commissioners will likely recommend that fines be assessed against the 200-odd CBS affiliates as well as the 20 CBS stations, the officials said. Powell and the Democratic commissioners differ on the extent to which the affiliates bear responsibility for airing the Super Bowl show.

"Community-based CBS affiliates across America were caught totally by surprise by the Janet Jackson halftime incident," the head of CBS' affiliates group, Bob Lee of WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va., said. "It would be terribly unfair to fine CBS affiliates who were as distressed as their viewers by the halftime ambush."

The Senate and House have passed bills that would increase maximum fines from $27,500 to as much as $500,000 per violation. A committee of congressional leaders has to work out differences before sending a final bill to President George W. Bush, who has endorsed the House legislation.

Last month, the FCC imposed a record $1.75 million fine against Clear Channel, the largest U.S. radio broadcaster, for indecent comments by Howard Stern and other disc jockeys.

Sun television critic David Zurawik contributed to this article.

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