CBS fine just a lot of furor

$550,000 may bring little real change

September 23, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

After 500,000 letters of complaint, eight months of threats, two Congressional hearings, two House and Senate bills and endless hours of testimony, federal regulators yesterday fined CBS a record $550,000 for showing Janet Jackson's bare breast during the Super Bowl halftime show. But for all the furious debate across the months, experts yesterday seemed split on whether television and society have been changed by Jackson's stunt and the reaction of the Federal Communications Commission to it.

Yesterday's action by the FCC took the form of a unanimous vote by the five commissioners to slap each of the 20 CBS-owned stations - including Baltimore's WJZ-TV - for indecency with the maximum fine of $27,500. The total of $550,000 is the largest ever levied against a television broadcaster. But larger fines were imposed earlier this year against Clear Channel Communications Inc. for two of its radio programs.

"There is some minimal effect, from the fallout, sure," said Dwight L. Teeter Jr., professor at the University of Tennessee and author of the book Law of Mass Communications. "But I don't think the FCC action is going to have any meaningful effect. What we've been seeing for the last nine months in Washington is mainly play acting, making believe that the FCC is forcing television to operate for the public convenience and in the public interest, when we all know it is not."

But Emerson Coleman, who as vice president for Hearst-Argyle Television is in charge of programming for 29 stations across the country, insisted that there has been change - at least at the local level.

"I think the incident and the discussion that followed have made a difference," he said. "Everyone is much more careful about what they put on the air. It is not a huge change. In terms of programming, people are making the same moves and going in the same directions that they were before the Super Bowl. But they are going about it in a much more thoughtful way. So, there has been change, some of it tangible."

Most noticeable are the up to 10 second delays used by networks with many live events. ABC has led the way with time delays on the Oscar and Emmy telecasts, as well as its National Football League games.

Both ABC and the NFL closely monitored a halftime show that kicked off the TV season for the NFL on Sept. 9. The NFL had final approval over all choreography, wardrobe and lyrics for Destiny's Child, Mary J. Blige, Toby Keith, Jessica Simpson and Elton John.

There has also been some toughening of standards by the networks when it comes to scripts for prime-time programs, say several Hollywood producers. Perhaps the most vocal in responding has been Steven Bochco, who complained last spring about ABC's using a heavier hand in editing when it came to words and images that might be deemed indecent on his cop drama NYPD Blue.

But all one has to do is watch an 8 p.m. sitcom like NBC's Joey and hear all the breast jokes aimed at the female character played by Drea de Matteo to wonder if Bochco and the other producers had a real complaint - or just a desire for publicity. Bochco last night declined comment.

"I don't see any content change at all this fall," Teeter said. "A $550,000 fine is not going to change the way a company like Viacom - making more than a billion dollars a year in profit - operates."

Even within the FCC, there was disagreement about whether the fine was large enough. Jonathan Adelstein, one of two Democrats on the five-member commission, said it should have been higher.

"After all the bold talk, it's a slap on the wrist that can be paid with just 7 1/2 seconds of Super Bowl ad time," he said. "I fear that today we're responding to a `wardrobe malfunction' with a regulatory malfunction."

Adelstein said more than 200 CBS affiliates that carried the Super Bowl should have also been fined - instead of just the stations that CBS owns. (Jay Newman, WJZ's general manager declined comment beyond an e-mail message containing the CBS statement.)

"While we regret that the incident occurred and have apologized to our viewers, we continue to believe that nothing in the Super Bowl broadcast violated indecency laws," the network's statement said. Les Moonves, CBS chairman, has vowed to fight the fine in court.

"It's all political posturing by the networks and the FCC," said Douglas Gomery, media economist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It speaks to none of the real concerns of media control and responsibility."

The Kaiser Family Foundation today will release a survey of 1,000 parents asking them (among other things): "Looking back on it now, how concerned are parents about the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident that has sparked so much national debate?"

Kaiser officials last night declined comment on the survey, but it reportedly shows only minimal concern among parents about the Super Bowl incident.

But there is great concern by those who responded about television beaming inappropriate messages into their homes and their children's lives.

"Forget Janet's breast," Teeter said. "That's the issue we should be debating."

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