D.C.'s Indecency Frenzy

Hearings abound; FCC sharpens enforcement blade

It was on for less than three-quarters of a second, a mere 18 frames, Viacom President Mel Karmazin told a sometimes hostile congressional panel last week. "It" was Janet Jackson's flash—what one congressman called a "weapon of mass distraction." And it's turning politicos trigger-happy.

The FCC is in enforcement mode, there are overlapping indecency hearings on Capitol Hill, and one overwrought congresswoman dubbed Viacom the poster child for corporate irresponsibility.

"In the same way the Enron scandal highlighted unacceptable corporate behavior," charged a trembling Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) at the House hearing, "Viacom's support of 'shock jocks' and allowing a tasteless Super Bowl halftime performance to be broadcast nationwide has become an entertainment-industry scandal."

An uncomfortable and exasperated Karmazin called the comparison off-base, taking the "respectfully disagree" route as the Hill piled on.

When Rep. John Dingell read an MTV promo touting a "shocking" halftime to come, Karmazin said the "shock" was Timberlake's appearance, not the Jackson revelation. When Dingell challenged him, Karmazin retorted, "I don't know what more I can do. The truth may not satisfy you."

No other network showed up. Rep. Fred Upton's office conceded that the request was delivered on short notice; the others had scheduling conflicts. They are expected to appear at yet another hearing Feb. 26, though invitations hadn't been extended at press time. They should bring along flak jackets.

On his own

Karmazin waged a lonely battle. His apologies and pledges of action—including requiring its owned stations to delay live entertainment broadcasts—did not mollify the panel. "You still don't get it," said several members at the end of a more than four–hour session, which hammered away on everything from the halftime debacle to anything members found distasteful, including radio and reality shows.

Fellow witness NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue agreed with the subcommittee about halftime. When he first saw it, "I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach." Referring to MTV, he said the NFL handed them keys to the car without checking if they knew how to drive well. "The car crashed."

The whole industry seemed to have run into a brick wall in Washington last week.

Aiming his criticism at the entire broadcasting industry, California Rep. Christopher Cox was particularly dismissive: "We defend your right to cuss and run around with forest animals, but don't impose it on others."

What kind of attack Congress and the FCC plan to impose on broadcasters became clear. "We are working to sharpen our enforcement blade," FCC Chairman Michael Powell told separate Senate and House indecency hearings.

He took issue with Hill criticism of what it sees as lax indecency enforcement. He said he has been enforcing the rules but promised to ramp up efforts even more.

Powell said that, of the 30 indecency complaints currently being reviewed, the majority will result in proposed fines. He suggested a decision closing the "f-word–as–adjective loophole was imminent" and replied in the affirmative when Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) asked if he would like greater enforcement authority.

In both House and Senate hearings, the cable industry was called on to provide family-friendly programming services and to better inform subscribers of their right to have companies block unwanted channels.

Quoting a letter he received from the Consumers Union's Gene Kimmelman, Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain said: "Instead of forcing consumers to buy service tiers of 40, 50 or 75 channels, which include networks they never watch or channels they find offensive, Congress should require cable and satellite operators to offer á la carte programming."

Karmazin's grilling came on a day when the gathering storm of indecency backlash dovetailed with a media-related frenzy. Lobbyists and Washington reporters scrambled to cover the House and Senate indecency hearings, a cable-rate hearing, media-ownership oral arguments in Philadelphia, and the Comcast-Disney deal. Howard Lieberman, Washington attorney and former FCC official, called it "the biggest day for broadcast attorneys since the 1934 Act was passed."

The money shot

The immediate Hill response to Janet et al. last week was unanimous passage in the House Telecommunications Subcommittee of the bill to increase FCC fines tenfold. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate. A better gauge will be a full-committee markup of the bill in a couple of weeks, when it will almost certainly be loaded with a host of indecency and halftime-related additions (see box). Of those amendments, Upton said the most problematic are ones dealing with license revocation and adding violence to the indecency definition.

He made it clear, however, that he wanted a bill that would be on the president's desk in March, claiming he'd work to free the bill of any constitutional nonstarters. If so, said one network source, the "three strikes and you're off the air amendment would likely be a deal breaker."

Broadcasters are worried—and with good reason. Even if the amendments don't pass, some may become the de facto law of the land.