Published February 19, 2004
Stars have long known that sex-charged stunts bring in the Benjamins, but until the Janet Jackson (search) breast backlash, there seemed to be few consequences for celebs’ increasingly outlandish moves on the tube.
But since the Super Bowl (search) incident, networks, Hollywood watchdog groups and the government have been doing more than just snarling like in the past. This time, there’s been bite behind their bark.
A time-delay has been implemented for several live broadcasts, and the Federal Communications Commission has introduced plans to increase fines for broadcasters who air indecent material.
Some people are happy that regulators are cracking down. Others think they should back off. But will any of the tough talk clean up the airwaves?
“It won’t change a thing,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. “I don’t think broadcasting is going to go down gently. They’re having a hard enough time competing with all these cable channels.”
It's that competition with cable and the loss of network TV viewers that's pushed stars and broadcasters to push the limit, he said.
“In an attempt to get people to pay attention, they occasionally have to drop their pants or say a naughty word,” Thompson said.
But many parents trying to shield their children are frustrated with the onslaught of suggestive entertainment.
"There should be boundaries set," said Lori Bardsley, a Greensboro, N.C., mother of three and social activist. "They've gotten away with so much — they just keep pushing the envelope. These artists, they don't care about the average family."
The crackdown by the FCC and Congress — which held hearings last week on the Super Bowl incident and broadcast indecency — will likely throw a wrench into things for a while.
At the Grammys (search), CBS implemented a five-minute delay to keep questionable material out of people's living rooms. The Oscars will air on Feb. 29 with a five-second delay.
But most of the effects will likely be short-lived, according to industry gurus.
"They may have short-term victory," said Neal Gabler, author of "Life: The Movie." "They may win a few battles. But they never win the war, like it or not."
Just last weekend, Beyonce Knowles (search) caused a scandal during a performance at the basketball All-Star game when part of her outfit fell open and revealed much of her breast.
This battle over standards isn't exactly new. Remember all the brouhaha surrounding Madonna (search), Cyndi Lauper (search) and other pop stars in the 1980s, causing Tipper Gore (search) to call for song-lyric sanitizing? Or the boundary-skirting that went on in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, with sexually suggestive shows like "Laugh-in," "Three's Company" and others?
Part of the problem is the FCC’s hazy definition of indecency and the difficulty in proving that an airwaves incident is “patently offensive.”
“We live in a society where [Super Bowl halftime performers] Kid Rock and Nelly and Justin Timberlake sell millions of albums. To whom are they patently offensive?" Gabler said. "They may be offensive to people, but ‘patently’?”
The FCC defines broadcast indecency as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities."
"This is a very difficult area of enforcing these very vague standards," Viacom President and CEO Mel Karmazin said during last week's congressional hearings. "What we need is a roadmap. … It is not clear what is meant by 'indecency.'"
Still watchdogs like the Parents Television Council are calling for tougher enforcement.
"Free speech is limited in certain places, and the broadcast airwaves are one area where it's limited," said Lara Mahaney, spokeswoman for the PTC.
But limited-government advocates bristle at that notion.
"On First Amendment grounds, I don't like to see the government in the content-monitoring business," said “Fox News Watch” panelist James Pinkerton, a Newsday columnist. "I hate the thought of government lawyers sitting around studying nipples, breasts and swear words. It's a waste of taxpayer money."
Although the FCC has launched investigations into a host of indecency cases, critics say it only takes real action when extremely crude content or a powerful public reaction is involved.
When U2's Bono gave a Golden Globes speech last year on NBC and said "f—ing brilliant," the FCC originally OK'd it because he used the "f-word" as an adjective, not as a verb describing a sexual act. Only after pressure from parents' groups did the FCC reopen its investigation of the matter.
"We've referred to the FCC as a toothless lion," Mahaney said. "They weren't enforcing the law and that's why we've seen an escalation of indecent material."
Meanwhile, the FCC places most of the blame on broadcasters.
"It is irresponsible of our country's broadcasters to try to push the envelope in the face of commission policies aimed at balancing the needs to protect our children with the interests of the First Amendment," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said at a recent hearing on indecency. "We will continue to enforce our indecency rules with vigor."
As the FCC and interest groups fight over the details, parents are the ones at the battle's frontlines.
"Television enters every home in America," said Bardsley. "The media should be concerned for families and kids. A lot of people who are moms and dads are worried about our young sons and daughters."
In any case, the Janet Jackson incident will likely continue to have an impact on what’s on TV, at least for a while. In addition to the live-telecast delays, scenes in recent episodes of both “ER” and “NYPD Blue” were cleaned up to avoid offending anyone.
"When Dad is mad, you try to be really good for a while until he cools down," Thompson said. "That’s what’s going to happen here as well."