Broadcast Indecency Captures Capitol Hill

February 13, 2004
Never has the single flash of a body part moved the machinery of Washington, D.C. as has that of one Ms. Janet Jackson. Jackson's Super Bowl baring episode has ignited a wave of repercussions on Capitol Hill.

This week, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the House Telecom Subcommittee, intended to vote his broadcast indecency bill out of subcommittee. The bill would increase the FCC's current broadcast indecency fine tenfold to $275,000, and if Upton has his way, a "three-strikes" provision revoking a broadcaster's license after three violations, will be added to the bill. Upton indicated his intention to have the full Commerce Committee vote on the bill by the end of the month.

During a hearing on the bill on Wednesday, lawmakers raised the possibility of making networks, not affiliates, responsible for paying indecency fines, and raised a call to resurrect a broadcast programming standard.

Meanwhile, FCC Chairman Michael Powell played to the anti-indecency camp, saying he favored pulling a broadcaster's license for multiple indecency violations, which could conceivable constitute several so-defined vulgarities in a single program. Powell seemingly changed his tune from last year, when he shrugged off rocker Paul Hewson's (aka Bono) use of the F-word in The Golden Globes telecast as "adjectival." After a spanking from lawmakers for his lax attitude, Powell came out verbally swinging against broadcast indecency, but stayed true to his minimalist approach to regulation by challenging broadcasters to re-institute a voluntary code of conduct.

Viacom president and COO, Mel Karmazin, welcomed whatever definitions of indecency the FCC might care to issue. Karmazin said the vagueness of the current indecency standards makes them hard for broadcasters to follow, and hard for the FCC to enforce. Karmazin carried water for the broadcasters at the hearings and was summarily tongue-lashed by subcommittee member Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico over the Super Bowl incident.

Wilson said her fourth-grade son thought the broadcast was nasty, and "if the fourth grade boys at a public elementary school in Albuquerque can tell right from wrong, we need to ask ourselves where you corporate CEOs lost your way."

Karmazin told Wilson and her colleagues that they were "just wrong" to assume CBS had prior knowledge of the half-time stunt.

"We are not in a race to the bottom," Karmazin said.

While lawmakers mulled the fate of foul-mouthed programming, the broadcast lobby moved quickly to police itself. The National Association of Broadcasters said Wednesday it planned to hold a private "All-Industry Summit" to address topics related to responsible programming.

""The first-of-its-kind meeting, to be held in early spring, comes in response to growing concern over program content from parents, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission," the NAB stated.

"Broadcasters have a long history of being responsive to community needs, whether it be Amber Alerts, coverage of local issues, emergency weather warnings or providing airtime for charities," said NAB President Edward Fritts. "The time has come for a full and frank dialogue with our media colleagues on voluntary programming responsibility."

Fritts said local broadcasters, network representatives and others would be invited.

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