Fear was last week's f-word as affiliates pushed their networks to clamp down on content. The result appears to be extended delays on live entertainment shows and a hypersensitivity to edginess and skin. And this is supposed to be the February sweeps.
Under affiliate pressure, CBS added a five-minute delay to the Grammy awards last Sunday so it would be ready in case somebody who was expected to thank his mother instead thanked his motherblanking blank blank. Janet Jackson was out as a presenter at the Grammy awards, and Justin Timberlake probably would have been sent packing, too, if he hadn't been up for five awards.
Viacom Vice President and COO Mel Karmazin issued a memo explaining the company was "shocked and embarrassed" by the incident. He said Jackson's "unrehearsed, unplanned and unapproved display went far beyond the bounds of what is acceptable under our broadcast standards."
Affiliates bore the brunt of viewer complaints. "We're on the frontlines," said CBS Affiliate Board Chairman Bob Lee, president of WDBJ-TV Roanoke, Va. Stations are where most viewers go to vent and the FCC levies its penalties. "We're the ones who are going to get fined."
It wasn't "the screamers or the hard-core right" that were giving Lee an earful but "mainstream people." And, he added, "yes, we're concerned about the potential for license-revocation hearings."
For Lee, it wasn't just the Jackson incident but the "whole crotch-grabbing, flag-wrapping flavor of the halftime show" that prompted the board to fire off a letter to CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves saying its members were embarrassed by the network, didn't support it and wanted guarantees that it would clean up its act.
David Coy, general manager of WKBN-TV Youngstown, Ohio, says some of his advertisers pulled their regular schedules after the halftime stunt. "It's tough when you try to explain to them that it's not us and they say things like 'My board of directors wants to send a signal that we won't tolerate that.' They punish the people they can punish."
Doug Hall, general counsel for the Association of National Advertisers, expects advertisers to look for more content assurances from the networks on live events. From the advertisers' side, he says, the issue is whether the content "sufficiently undermined the quality of the buy that what they were purchasing was effectively destroyed and they want their money back."
Also under affiliate pressure last week, NBC opted not to air a scene in ER
featuring a "fleeting glimpse" of the breast of an 80-year-old patient. Although it had been planned for the first day of the sweeps, it was hardly racy fare. "Tastefully done and nothing like the halftime incident," agreed one affiliate board member. "I'm not sure it would have been a huge problem except for the atmosphere we find ourselves in at the moment."
Still, enough affiliates said "this was not the time to test those waters" to prompt the network to use an alternative scene.
NBC made clear it was responding to affiliates rather than any belief that there was something offensive in the scene, which was described as appropriate in context and would have aired after 10:30 p.m. ET. "We have unfortunately concluded that the atmosphere created by this week's events has made it too difficult for many of our affiliates to air this shot," the network said.
ABC, meanwhile, sent the signal that, although there would be envelope-opening on Oscar night, the network would be on guard for any envelope-pushing.
ABC said it will add a five-second delay to the Feb. 29 telecast after negotiations with the Academy that began before the Super Bowl but after f-word award gaffes at rival networks got Washington in a lather. It remains lathered, too, with two indecency hearings scheduled for this week and FCC Commissioner Michael Copps getting almost as much media exposure last week as Janet Jackson's anatomy.
While CBS was taking heat from its stations, NBC was getting fairly high marks for its sensitivity to affiliates. Ever since a Fear Factor
promo about eating a horse's rectum turned some heads and stomachs and created "a bit of a row" with the affiliate board last year, the network has kept in closer contact on issues that might raise content flags.
"I think the process works, " says NBC Affiliate Board Chairman Roger Ogden. "You will always have the creative types pressing the envelope, and you will always have some diversity as to what's appropriate and what's not. The only way you get the ultimate answer is to have dialog and discussion, and I give NBC credit for being willing to enter into that process. I think they came to the right conclusion."
But pressure was coming from more than just affiliates. The networks were also reporting to House Telecommunications Subcommittee senior member John Dingell last week about their plans to tighten indecency protections, based on requests from the panel before the Jackson incident .
ABC sounded a note that balanced principled defense of its content with obedience to Washington. When asked by Dingell whether the f-word should ever be broadcast, Network President Alex Wallau effectively said yes. What he actually said: "ABC believes the f-word is not appropriate for network programming in almost
any circumstances [emphasis ours]." Both NBC and Fox agreed that there were rare times, as Fox put it, when artistic considerations demanded it.
Citing its airing of Saving Private Ryan, Wallau said the profanity, repeated several times by soldiers in the heat of battle, is acceptable given the "special nature and quality of the film." He also pointed out that the telecast was preceded by extensive warnings.
In its letter to Dingell, NBC somewhat surprisingly supported the proposed boost in FCC indecency fines. Fox did not, citing concerns about chilling speech. ABC didn't address the question directly, saying it is "committed to complying with all indecency rules adopted and articulated by Congress and the FCC," no matter what size the fines are. CBS had not weighed in at press time.