- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission told lawmakers yesterday that the Super Bowl halftime show was “a new low for prime-time television,” but the president of Viacom Inc., which broadcast the program on its network CBS, said it didnt necessarily meet the legal definition of indecency.

FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the agency is investigating whether the Feb. 1 show, which ended with Justin Timberlake tearing off part of Janet Jacksons top and exposing her right breast to 90 million viewers during a duet performance, violated federal indecency laws.

“The now infamous display during the Super Bowl halftime show, which represented a new low in prime-time television, is just the latest example in a growing list of deplorable incidents over the nation’s airwaves,” Mr. Powell said.

He called on broadcasters to stop airing sexual content and obscenities. “Action must be taken by the entire television and radio industry to heed the public’s outcry and take affirmative steps to curb the race to the bottom. This industry simply must help clean up its own room,” said Mr. Powell, who testified alongside the other four FCC commissioners.

On the other side of the U.S. Capitol, Mel Karmazin, Viacom’s president and chief operating officer, told a House panel that although he found the Super Bowl halftime show “very regrettable,” his company’s lawyers do not think the incident violated broadcast standards.

Mr. Karmazin also told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet that no one in his company knew that Miss Jackson and Mr. Timberlake had planned the stunt. But, Mr. Karmazin said, he accepted responsibility for it.

“I take responsibility that it aired. Shame on me,” he said. Several committee members asked Mr. Karmazin why no one within Viacom had been fired, but the executive said an internal investigation found none of his employees at fault.

“Scapegoats are something I try to avoid. I’m not just going to find a scapegoat just so I can say somebody’s head rolled,” he said.

Mr. Timberlake, Miss Jackson and her personal choreographer met one hour before the halftime show and cooked up the scheme to remove her top during the program’s finale, Mr. Karmazin told the lawmakers. Miss Jackson has said that a red bra was supposed to have remained in place after Mr. Timberlake tore off her top.

Rep. Heather A. Wilson, New Mexico Republican, told Mr. Karmazin that she didn’t buy the story that Viacom executives had been unaware of the stunt plans.

“You knew what you were doing. You wanted us all to be abuzz. It improves your ratings. It improves your market share, and it lines your pockets,” she said.

The FCC has received more than 200,000 complaints about the halftime show, which was produced by MTV, another Viacom property. National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who also testified before the House panel, said his organization had several run-ins with MTV during the planning of the show.

“I feel like we gave the keys to the car to someone without assuring ourselves that they knew how to drive, and the car crashed,” Mr. Tagliabue said.

The incident occurred at a time when lawmakers were pressing the FCC to crack down on indecent programming. Legislation to increase the fines for indecency from $27,500 to $275,000 has been introduced in both chambers of Congress.

Last month, the FCC proposed a record $755,000 fine against Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation’s largest radio station chain, for the sexually explicit “Bubba the Love Sponge” which aired on four of its Florida outlets.

Mr. Powell told the Senate panel that the FCC has gone after violators aggressively, and would start doing more, including fining broadcasters for each incident rather than each program, and revoking licenses of some serial violators.

He said he has asked broadcasters and cable operators to take steps to curb indecent and other inappropriate programming.

Mr. Powell also agreed with lawmakers who said parents should be able to choose which cable channels they receive so that they can protect their children from profanity and the sex and violent images that frequently are seen on some cable networks.

“Absolutely, the combination of what packages you get and what rights you have to block programming are the right places to look. you can’t just easily take the broadcast model and roll it over to cable,” said Mr. Powell, who also testified with the other FCC commissioners before the House subcommittee.

The FCC does not have a good record enforcing broadcasting standards, said Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. Last year, the agency received 240,000 complaints about 375 programs but issued three fines, he said.

“It is increasingly clear the paltry fines the FCC assess have become nothing more than a joke,” Mr. Markey said.

Even if Congress raises the fines, it won’t be enough deterrence, some lawmakers said. In Viacom’s case, a $275,000 fine represents 0.001 percent of the company’s annual revenue, said Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat.

Mr. Karmazin said fine increases could put small broadcasters out of business; he urged the agency to provide better guidelines instead.

While criticizing Viacom, Congress last month voted to allow the company to own more television stations. Bowing to a veto threat from President Bush, lawmakers agreed to let companies such as Viacom own television stations reaching 39 percent of the viewing public, rather than 35 percent.

The FCC says it has stepped up enforcement of indecency rules. But the agency’s enforcement bureau declined in December to fine NBC for airing an expletive uttered by rock star Bono during the 2003 Golden Globe Awards show. The commission is considering whether to overrule the bureau in that case.

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