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FCC Will Bust Balls in Indecency Crackdown

WASHINGTON – Frustrated by the profanity and nudity on television that culminated with Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s sexy Super Bowl dance, angry lawmakers Wednesday raised the prospect of expanding the fight against indecency on television to cable networks for the first time.

In separate, simultaneous hearings, members of the House of Representatives and Senate told members of the Federal Communications Commission and the president of Viacom, which owns CBS, that fines could just be the beginning of a new crackdown on profanity and indecency on U.S. airwaves. Most immediately, they appear headed toward passing legislation that would increase tenfold the fine on television and radio broadcasters that violate FCC decency rules, to a maximum of $275,000 per violation.

A House committee is expected to approve a version of the bill today, while senators have introduced a similar bill.

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

But lawmakers say the Superbowl showed off more than skin. They say it’s a lowering of standards.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, (D), NJ “During the Superbowl we were bombarded with ads seeking flatulent horses, crotch-biting dogs, a monkey making sexual advances to a woman.”

“You knew what you were doing,” said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., her voice cracking. “You knew that shock and indecency creates a buzz that moves market share and lines your pockets.”

Wilson compared executives of Viacom to those of Enron, and accused them of following the bottom line all the way to the lowest cultural denominator. [If so, why weren’t the Enron hearings held as expeditiously as these?]

Karmazin insisted that CBS and MTV, which are both owned by Viacom, 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.

Lawmakers – including Republicans usually wary of government regulation – raised the possibility of getting even tougher, such as passing a “three strikes and you’re off the air” law that would revoke the FCC licenses of repeat offenders.

Reformers who focus on network television are missing “85 percent of the story,” because 85 percent of Americans now get their television programming from cable and satellite TV, FCC Chairman Michael Powell told senators. In the clearest sign yet that elected officials may be ready to take even more dramatic action, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., favored a suggestion by the Consumers Union that Congress require cable and satellite operators to offer a la carte programming in which people pick and pay only for the channels they want.

Under pressure to be more proactive, Powell had asked a day earlier for more voluntary reforms from both cable and broadcast groups. In a letter to the National Cable Television Association’s Robert Sachs, Powell said that while “much of the focus has been on broadcast programming, I believe the cable industry cannot completely ignore the discontent.” He asked the National Association of Broadcasters for the reinstatement of a voluntary code of conduct that might also include outreach and delays of live, unscripted shows.

Congress would have to change rules governing the FCC before the commission could expand its oversight of cable TV. Because cable is a subscription service that does not use the public airwaves, it has historically been out of the FCC’s jurisdiction. But in the aftermath of the Super Bowl halftime show, Congress may be willing to give the FCC greater authority over cable.

“I understand that Congress has been a reluctant body when legislating on the issue of speech,” Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said. “But we find ourselves faced with an industry that has failed to control itself.”

The challenge now will be to temper Congress’s zeal to write a bill that would be untenable for President Bush to sign. “We need to strike a balance,” John Shimkus (R-Ill.) told The Hill.

Even before Karmazin testified before the House committee, he endured more than an hour of complaining by lawmakers, even some of those usually friendly to Hollywood, about the amount of sex, violence and profanity on radio and TV.

“We are outraged,” said Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif who’s only claim to fame is the fact that she was married to Sonny Bono. “The American people have finally said, “enough!’ ”

Karmazin said, “the problem is the current vagueness in how indecency is defined.” Karmazin might have also noted that part of the problem was idiots like Bono heading this committee.

There were times when the audience – packed with telecom lobbyist and at least one NFL team owner – couldn’t contain its laughter. Congress, reflecting a view widespread among Americans, does not find fornication and flatulence amusing, but the spectacle of a congressional hearing on these subjects inevitably produced chuckles.

Democrats shared the Republicans’ outrage over the coarsening of TV programming.

“I really wish this hearing weren’t necessary,” said a subdued Karen McCarthy (D-Mo.), who briefly cheered up as she reminisced about her own glory under the bright lights of a halftime show as a member of her high school’s drill team

All four networks had been invited to appear at the hearings by the Democratic minorities, but only Karmazin showed up. Fox and NBC said their CEOs had scheduling conflicts [naturally] and lawmakers weren’t interested in substitutes.

 

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