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CBS owned and operated TV Stations fined $550,000

September 22, 2004

The FCC finally gets around to proposing that $550,000 fine on the CBS owned and operated television stations for the JANET JACKSON SUPER BOWL halftime incident, issuing a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture that the brief exposure of JACKSON's breast was "in apparent violation of the broadcast indecency standard." The fine is against VIACOM's 20 CBS-affiliated licenses.

Chairman MICHAEL POWELL's statement warns that "there is always a substantial danger that a regulatory authority buoyed by an outraged public will overstep and fail to heel to the commands of the First Amendment. Our decision stays in bounds, but I am troubled at the suggestion of some on the Commission that we should reach further and drop the hammer for the musical performances themselves- divorced from the infamous wardrobe malfunction-or for the commercials. I agree that some of the performances were risqué and that commercials were frequently crass and sophomoric, but they were hardly indecent within the bounds of federal law. To let loose governmental sanction on such a thin premise is to stray from our limited role in enforcing the indecency laws, into the role of national nanny-arbiter of taste, values and propriety."

Nevertheless, POWELL noted that VIACOM was not "passively involved" in the incident and knew, "or surely should have known," that the incident was coming because it owned show producer MTV. POWELL reiterated his opposition to creating a "'red book' of dos and don'ts" for broadcasters.

Commissioner MICHAEL COPPS, concurring in part and dissenting in part, was one of the Commissioners referred to by POWELL as wanting to penalize non-VIACOM-owned affiliates and wanting to fine everyone for the musical component of the halftime show as well. "Let's not kid ourselves that this fine will serve as a disincentive to multi-billion dollar conglomerates broadcasting indecency," asserted COPPS. This fine needs to be seen in the context of a broadcast in which each 30-second commercial cost more than $2 million. In other words, this fine represents less than 10 seconds of ad time on the SUPER BOWL and will be easily absorbed as a cost of doing business. We must continue to demonstrate to citizens that their complaints will receive prompt and vigorous attention and to the broadcast industry that Commission involvement in these issues is not a passing fancy."

Commissioner JONATHAN ADELSTEIN called the fine "totally inadequate... a slap on the wrist that can be paid with just 7½ seconds of Super Bowl ad time." The Democrat called the ruling "a puzzling precedent by failing to hold all licensees responsible for the material broadcast over their stations. Why announce such a thorough investigation if we just let some of the stations that broadcast this material completely off the hook?" ADELSTEIN acknowledged that affiliates did not know what was coming but still insisted that they should nevertheless be fined for airing the nudity.