FCC Hearings on Janet Jackson Escapade Are Seen as Theater

Roundup: Media's Take

David Zurawik, writing in the Baltimore Sun (Feb. 11, 2004)

Indecency on the airwaves has become such a hot button issue since Janet Jackson's Super Bowl stunt that there will be two hearings today in Washington - and no shortage of politicians and regulators making pronouncements about the decline in broadcast standards as they promise reform.

But even as the TV networks race to delete images of nudity and sex from such prime-time dramas as ER and Without a Trace in an effort to show that they can police themselves, media historians and analysts say real, lasting change is unlikely. As dramatic as the pictures and soundbites coming out of Washington today might be, it will be mostly political posturing, the experts say, merely the latest movement in a dance between Hollywood and Washington that started with the Communications Act of 1934.

"It is absolutely political theater - especially on the part of Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Powell," said Douglas Gomery, resident scholar at the American Library of Broadcasting at the University of Maryland in College Park and co-author of Who Owns the Media?"These hearings are not going to result in any meaningful change in the kind of television that comes into our homes over the network airwaves."...

... Today's hearing in the House is on legislation that would fine stations 10 times the current amount for carrying material judged indecent by the FCC. Network officials, FCC commissioners and representatives of the National Football League will testify before the House panel today.

"With my bill multiplying FCC fines for indecency tenfold, networks will do more than just apologize for airing such brazen material, they will be paying big bucks for their offenses," said Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, who introduced the legislation before the Super Bowl flap.

At the Senate hearing, most eyes will be on Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, the ranking Democrat, who wants to link increased fines for indecency to a ban on violent programming between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Furthermore, Hollings wants the FCC to revoke the licenses of stations that air indecent or violent material during those hours. License revocation is the most severe penalty the FCC can impose. Powell and the four other FCC commissioners will go from the Senate hearing to Upton's House inquiry.

But analysts say there is little chance Hollings' ban on violence and call for license revocation will ever become law. And, while Upton's effort to increase maximum fines to $275,000 from the current $27,500 is expected to pass with President Bush backing it as a way to help parents protect children from unwanted media messages, it will result in little change...

...The one thing on which all media analysts agreed is the importance of seeing today's hearings and the Super Bowl fallout in context of the larger issue of media consolidation on the part of companies like Viacom.

The flurry of self-censorship since the Super Bowl - a fairly transparent attempt by the networks to convince Washington that they can be trusted to self-regulate - does raise some First Amendment concerns. As John Wells, president of the Writer's Guild and executive producer of ER, said last week, such actions could"have a chilling effect on the narrative integrity of adult dramas." But the FCC does not regulate cable, so HBO and the other channels can continue to do adult content no matter what happens in the hearings.

Furthermore, at this point, such First Amendment concerns are nothing compared to the rule changes championed by Powell last year that would allow a company to own TV stations that reach 45 percent of the households in the United States (up from 35 percent). The protests to that FCC action were so widespread that Congress responded with legislation capping ownership at 39 percent.

The battle continues, but Powell's credibility and image have been bloodied, and experts say his outrage over Jackson's bare breast is an attempt to shift the focus of the debate...

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