Rep. Fred Upton was leading the Capitol Hill clampdown on raunchy TV even before the Janet Jackson incident. Now he really
smells blood. "This race to the bottom has got to end," he said from his Washington office last week as furor over the halftime show swirled.
The Michigan Republican is also probably going to get a new media-indecency law, maybe by next month, that could whack radio or television networks or station-group owners for as much as $3 million for crossing the line.
Upton's bill was sailing even before the Jackson event; in an election year, politicians especially like to fight indecency. Now "it's on a fast track. We're intending to vote it in subcommittee as early as next week. It should be approved by a strong bipartisan vote."
The White House already has his blessing. Expecting quick House and Senate approval, Upton predicted shipping it to the White House for President Bush's signature before the end of March.
Upton, chairman of House Telecommunications Subcommittee, is the sponsor of a bill that would increase the FCC's maximum fine for indecency violations ten-fold. A single transgression could end up costing a broadcaster $275,000. Airing the same questionable material over a network of stations or repeatedly allowing indecent comments during a call-in show could cost up to $3 million.
Last week, Upton praised the FCC's decision to investigate not only Jackson's costume "malfunction" but her entire crotch-grabbing, bump-and-grind number.
"It was more than just the exposure. It was lyrics of the songs; it was gyrations of the dance," Upton said of the halftime event that some considered far too sexy, even without Jackson's exposed breast. "This was, in essence, an MTV special and not a traditional halftime event that half the country could accept."
He's not ready to blame CBS, MTV (which produced the halftime show) or their parent Viacom for the incident. "They say they were scammed," he said. "I want to believe that."
Upton played down speculation, some from FCC Chairman Michael Powell's office, that CBS or sister company Infinity could be stripped of a TV- or radio-station license if any Viacom executives higher up than the MTV division knew about plans for Jackson's stunt.
"I don't believe there was collusion between CBS Sports and MTV, and I don't know who pushed Janet Jackson into this. I don't know if she did it on her own or if she did it with some push from the MTV folks." He vowed to find out, if the FCC doesn't beat him to it.
The questions have certainly spooked the cable industry. Lawyers for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association huddled to begin crafting a strategy that will keep Washington off cable's back. In the meantime, NCTA reissued its stock statement touting cable's leadership in "creating children's and family-oriented networks," teaching media literacy through its Cable in the Classroom initiative, and providing channel-blocking capability to any subscribers that want it.
Despite his revulsion to The Sopranos,
one of the most successful shows on cable, Upton is practical enough to dismiss the chorus of family-values activists calling to eliminate cable's exemption from indecency restrictions.
"The FCC doesn't have the authority," he noted. "It's been deregulated; it's not over-the-air."
The plunge into indecency enforcement has provided an education Upton would rather forget. Flying to Washington to chair his first hearing on his legislation, he tried to shield his briefing book on past FCC fines, mainly for radio programs, from the passenger sitting next to him. "I was afraid he'd think I was a pervert. There very detailed exposés of sex between cheerleaders and football players and incest. It's disgusting. The transcripts go on page after page."
Nobody, not even Upton himself, would describe the 50-year-old married father of two as the hippest media consumer. Although he subscribes to Comcast's digital Silver Package, he spends his time watching sports in high-definition. The movies available on his 12 HBO channels aren't his thing: "I'm sports and news."
Two years ago, after NBC's Bob Wright complained that broadcast networks can't compete with unrestrained cable shows like HBO's The Sopranos, Upton and wife Amey tuned in to check what the buzz was about. The episode featured some of the series' most graphic sex and violence, when a psychopathic mobster Ralphie (played by Joey Pantoliano) forced his stripper girlfriend into group sex and later beat her to death.
Not that Upton got that far into the show. "We lasted about two minutes."
Sympathetic to parents group's complaints about cable, Upton said a voluntary industry code shifting the raciest programming to later parts of the day is worth exploring. "Constitutional issues make it difficult to impose the same parameters that apply to over-the-air broadcasting. That doesn't mean we shouldn't question it."
Although a long list of federal court cases shield cable from broadcast-style indecency regulation, critics think there are avenues for tougher restrictions. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps told the Today
show last week that the FCC should tighten controls on cable if the industry doesn't police itself better.
Asked how that would be possible given federal judges' hostility to regulating cable content, Copps aide Paul Margie said that even the judges who struck down a law requiring expensive scrambling technology on adult channels acknowledged that cable has an obligation to keep harmful programming from children. "We don't know 100% what the answer is," he said, "but we do think there is one."