Open Mike - Broadcasting & Cable

Open Mike

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Who Approved Super Bowl Act?

Editor: Did CBS and MTV approve the breast-baring end of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl act?

In a world where 30 seconds are worth more than $2 million, there can be no doubt that Jackson's breast's 15 seconds of fame were scripted (oh, yes, that and the fact she just happened to have "jewelry" on her nipple. Don't we all, just in case?).

I was just one of 100 million people whose jaws dropped after Justin Timberlake sang "I'll get you naked by the end of this song" and then proceeded to reach over and "accidentally" rip off part of Jackson's costume.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell has commendably launched an investigation, saying, "Our nation's children, parents and citizens deserve better." You bet we do. Plain old common sense tells us this whole act was just downright irresponsible ... and intentional at some level.

Shame on Tom Freston and Judy McGrath, who are responsible for MTV's programming.

Jim Steyer, Common Sense Media, San Francisco (received via e-mail)

Cable Should Clean Up Its Act, Too

Editor: I am very proud to see that, for once, the FCC has decided to take off the handcuffs that they have for years put on themselves and decided to do something about this trend to try to stun audiences with bad language, nudity, or whatever producers think they can get away with. I do wish that the cable companies had enough guts to do the same.

Last night, I heard Bill Maher [on HBO] use the f-word a total of eight times in less than five minutes. I know that some of his guests were amused by this show of stupidity on his part but at least one seemed to be very uptight with this type of language.

Raymond M. Barp, Digitalize LLC, Burbank, Calif. (received via e-mail)

CBS's Advertising Double Standard

The recent uproar over CBS's rejection of what it deemed "controversial" advertising during the Super Bowl demands greater scrutiny of what is—and is not—considered fit for public airwaves.

CBS rejected MoveOn.org's ad about the consequences of federal deficits, citing its longstanding policy of rejecting issue ads anywhere on the network. Its policy has served the network well, and this would be an ideal use of it. ...

If only it were 1970. Times change, yet CBS's declaration that it refuses to air "controversial" issue ads exposes a policy crafted in the days when it was far easier to separate issues from products, controversy from corporate sponsors.

The reality, circa 2004, is that CBS is more than happy to allow corporate spinsters to use its airwaves to propagandize about their many kindnesses, often in complete defiance of the truth, but shudders at the thought of furthering political discourse, even when the speaker is willing to spend millions to make their point. The result is a one-sided political discussion, an advertising industry serving up heaping helpings of feel-good bunk featuring actors as happy employees of relentlessly thoughtful and kind companies who really just want to provide universal health care and clean up the environment.

Should CBS decide to actually toe the line and reject "controversial" ads discussing "issues," its lineup should strike any Wal-Mart spot that strays beyond touting its low, low prices. As the Washington Post
recently noted, the world's biggest company is "stepping up its slate of feel-good television ads, with more spots featuring happy employees as well as examples of Wal-Mart's community involvement."

Seems Wal-Mart has a teeny little PR "issue" on its hands: according to the Post, surveys "showed consumers mistrusted the company's labor practices and its impact on the community." The facts don't lie: In the last year alone, Wal-Mart has faced lawsuits from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as investigations into its use of illegal workers.

The company was recently accused of locking employees in stores at night, while an internal audit found extensive violations of child-labor laws and state regulations requiring time for breaks and meals. Meanwhile, Mother Jones
magazine reports that "the average hourly worker at Wal-Mart earns barely $18,000 a year at a company that pocketed $6.6 billion in profits last year."

Controversial? No! Not when you blanket the airwaves with ad dollars.

Direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical ads are the very embodiment of "controversial." CBS regularly runs an ad by Pfizer in which the company says, "Pfizer is helping people in need get the medicines they need."

Really? Pfizer, along with its compatriots in the drug business, lobbied like demons to weaken the new Medicare bill so that it does not significantly lower drug prices. Time magazine reported recently that Pfizer is actively working to "shut down the Canadian pipeline" for seniors who are struggling to get lower-priced medicines.

Compare the Wal-Mart and pharmaceutical ads with MoveOn.org's "controversial" issue ad, and the subjective nature of the policy comes into real focus. The ad itself—a clever spot featuring children working in adult jobs to pay off the national debt—might well be disturbing to those who feel the national debt is an amorphous political football, but its message is based on a pair of less-than-shocking facts: The national debt will have to be paid off by future generations, and the Bush Administration is at fault for creating trillions in deficits—a fact that the government's own budget documents confirm.

CBS's policy creates a powerful one-way conversation, in which corporate speakers can use advertising to paper over the truth while nonprofits daring to discuss the most important issues of the day are hustled off the dais.

Charles Davis, Associate professor, University of Missouri School of Journalism, Columbia, Mo. (received via e-mail)

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