Frenzy over indecency cools off

Group that orchestrated campaign aimed at FCC now more `judicious'


WASHINGTON -- In the month after Janet Jackson's breast was bared on CBS during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, the Federal Communications Commission was deluged with 13 indecency complaints per second, on average.

That flood hasn't exactly become a trickle. About 70 complaints a day come in, but the frenzy over on-air indecency has cooled.

The main reason is the lack of a high-profile incident. In addition, broadcasters say they are more cautious, radio shock jocks are being told to tone it down or are moving to satellite radio, and anti-indecency groups aren't flooding the FCC with as many complaints.

"As long as there isn't another Janet Jackson-type Super Bowl incident, the public's already short attention span will remain focused in other places," said lawyer Alex N. Vogel, a lobbyist for CBS parent Viacom Inc.

Much of the plunge in complaints stems from a drop in filings by the Parents Television Council, the public interest group that helped push the number of complaints to 1.4 million last year.

It has been estimated that the Los Angeles group accounted for 90 percent of the complaints to the FCC.

Council officials say the group hasn't made a conscious effort to scale back indecency complaints but that it is turning its attention to issues such as television violence.

"We are just being more judicious about what we complain about," said Dan Isett, the council's director of corporate and government affairs.

Critics of the council contend that its orchestrated campaign created the misimpression of a widespread uprising among viewers, noting that many of the shows the group lambastes, such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Desperate Housewives, command huge ratings.

"This assumption that everybody jumped in lock step to some moral value that took over America is false," said Jim Dyke, executive director of the industry-financed Web site TV Watch (

"There are tens of millions of people who are watching these shows that a handful of people complain are indecent," he said.

Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, said the indecency frenzy lost momentum.

"Historically, the bulk of indecency complaints have been the consequence of campaigns by a handful of organizations rather than a spontaneous outpouring of individuals," Kaplan said. "It's hard to sustain a moral panic in the context of real natural disasters like the tsunami, the Iraq war and political corruption."

Nonetheless, broadcasters are monitoring their material more closely. Last year, the FCC recommended a record $7.7 million in fines, including a $550,000 penalty for the Super Bowl incident that CBS is appealing.

This year, the FCC has recommended none, although the agency is expected to act soon on pending complaints and could levy substantial penalties. Complaints being looked at include one involving shock jock Howard Stern and an obscenity allegedly uttered during a Live 8 concert broadcast on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC.

Florida lawyer Jack Thompson, who has filed hundreds of indecency complaints in the past decade, said the fines succeeded in gaining the attention of broadcasters.

"If you put up a speed trap in a community and the word gets out that the cops are there, people eventually slow down," Thompson said.

Thomas Mandel, president of Rubber City Radio Group in Akron, Ohio, said he has been more active in policing potentially offensive broadcasts.

Mandel ordered his staff to review every album in the station's music library for lyrics that might offend listeners. When one of his stations aired a syndicated radio program from Fox Sports Net Inc. that made reference to white women having sex with Shaquille O'Neal, a black National Basketball Association star, Mandel complained to a Fox Sports executive.

"I told him that this was inappropriate, that there was a line that needs to be drawn," he said.

Another reason for the decline in complaints is that some of the raunchiest radio personalities are moving away from broadcast stations. Stern is taking his show to Sirius Satellite Radio Inc., and the duo Opie and Anthony air on XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc.'s system.

A single documented complaint to the FCC triggers an indecency review. The agency defines broadcast indecency as "patently offensive" material that depicts "sexual or excretory organs or activities."

Shows aired between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are likely to be in the broadcast audience, are subject to enforcement. Stations can be fined as much as $32,500 for each violation.

Last year, Bill Wippel, a 70-year-old public relations consultant in Normandy Park, Wash., filed a complaint after the Jackson incident, which he said inappropriately blindsided viewers with offensive material.

The amount of indecency on the air has declined, he said, but only because the big media companies are pragmatic.

"Indecency will lay low for a while because it's a political football now," Wippel said. "The big conglomerates don't want to make any waves."

Jube Shiver Jr. writes for the Los Angeles Times

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