Lawmakers cite Super Bowl halftime show in demands to stop indecency

By Jonathan D. Salant


WASHINGTON – Janet Jackson’s exposed breast was talk of Capitol Hill on Wednesday, with lawmakers and regulators saying it’s the latest example of all that’s wrong with TV and should serve as the impetus for government to get tough with broadcasters.

At a pair of hearings, lawmakers excoriated Mel Karmazin, president of Viacom Inc. His company owns CBS, which broadcast the raunchy Super Bowl halftime show that included Jackson.

Members of the House Telecommunications Committee spent more than two hours grilling Karmazin, who again apologized for the show that ended with singer Justin Timberlake tearing off part of Jackson’s top and exposing her right breast to 90 million TV viewers.

“You knew what you were doing,” said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., her voice cracking. “You wanted us to be all abuzz. It lines your pockets.”

Karmazin insisted that CBS and MTV did not know about plans to rip off Jackson’s top, nor the crotch-grabbing dance steps that were also included in the halftime show. He said none of those actions took place during rehearsals.

“Everyone at Viacom and everyone at CBS and everyone at MTV was shocked and appalled and embarrassed at what had happened,” Karmazin said.

To prevent a repeat, he said CBS will air live programming on a five-minute delay, which was done for the Grammy awards this week. He said the network-owned stations would also buy equipment so that locally televised live programs would also be time-delayed. And he said the network was reviewing its standards for commercials in response to criticism over a movie trailer for a horror film and Super Bowl ads showing a flatulent horse and a crotch-biting dog.

The halftime show, produced by CBS’ corporate cousin MTV, drew more than 200,000 complaints to the Federal Communications Commission.

National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, also testifying before the House panel, said he expressed concerns about the halftime show in December and even considered dismissing MTV as producer. But he decided to move forward following a meeting with CBS President Les Moonves, and because of MTV’s track record in producing the 2001 halftime show.

“Clearly, there was a wide gap over what was appropriate,” Tagliabue said. “We should have recognized it earlier. We gave the keys to the car to someone else to drive without assuring they knew how to drive the car safely, and they crashed.”

All five FCC commissioners appeared before the two panels and urged Congress to give them a more powerful tool to use against broadcasters.

Legislation in both houses would increase the maximum fine for indecency from $27,500 to $275,000. The FCC already has said it will begin fining broadcasters for each incident rather than each program.

“Cost-of-doing-business fines will never stop Big Media’s slide to the bottom,” Commissioner Michael Copps said. “All of the fines we have imposed against Viacom could be paid for by adding one commercial to the Super Bowl, and the company would probably end up with a profit.”

Viacom is no stranger to the fight over indecency. Its Infinity Broadcasting subsidiary paid $1.7 million in 1995 to settle several cases against disc jockey Howard Stern, and the FCC last year proposed fining the company $357,000 for a radio segment on the “Opie and Anthony Show” in which a couple was said to be having sex in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Viacom is contesting the fine for its broadcast of the Opie and Anthony show. Karmazin said the show was tasteless and gross, but not indecent.

He called on the FCC to issue rules defining what is an indecent program.

“What’s happened is the standard has changed,” Karmazin said. “It is not exactly clear what is meant by indecency.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the commission has been able to enforce indecency standards for decades, and doesn’t need to go through a time-consuming process to write a rule.

“It’s a red herring,” Powell said. “There is no ambiguity with the indecency standard. It’s existed for 30 years.”