TOM BEARDEN: How to tackle public indecency on broadcast television was the question before Capitol Hill lawmakers today, as FCC commissioners and the heads of the NFL and CBS testified.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell says his agency received over 200,000 complaints about the Janet Jackson Super Bowl controversy, helping prompt the commission to begin issuing fines per incident, rather than per program.
It may also start revoking broadcast licenses for repeat offenders.
MICHAEL POWELL: The now infamous Super Bowl show -- which I think, I agree with Senator Boxer -- was more than just the final incident, it was outrageous throughout. Not only was it outrageous and offending to children, I think it's important to note it's enormously degrading to women to suggest that was proper behavior.
But it is just the latest example on what we have noted as a growing list of deplorable incidents on the nation's airwaves.
TOM BEARDEN: Before the Senate Commerce and later a House telecommunications subcommittee, Chairman Powell was joined by the four other FCC commissioners in calling for tougher penalties against broadcasters who violate indecency laws, raising the current FCC fine cap tenfold -- from $27,500 to $275,000 per transgression.
Many lawmakers said they are skeptical in the wake of the Super Bowl display that a monetary fine will prevent future episodes, and had tough questions for those in charge of the show.
REP. HEATHER WILSON: I should not have to use the NFL half-time show as a negative example to teach my children. And there are lot of other parents who feel the same way.
As a lawmaker, I want to know how something like this made it onto the show in a very scripted rehearsed for weeks performance. And in the same way that Enron highlighted unacceptable corporate behavior from a financial point of view, and ethics in our corporate boardrooms, Viacom's support of shock jocks and allowing tasteless Super Bowl programming is a nationwide entertainment industry scandal.
You knew what you were doing. You knew what kind of entertainment you're selling, and you wanted us all to be abuzz, here in this room and on the playground and my kids' school, because it improves your ratings. It improves your market share. And it lines your pockets.
TOM BEARDEN: Mel Karmazin is president of Viacom Inc., owner of both CBS, which aired the half-time show, and MTV, which produced it.
MEL KARMAZIN: Let me say, congressmen, you're just wrong.
Let me just say that everyone at Viacom and everyone at CBS and everyone at MTV was shocked and appalled and embarrassed by what transpired. Miss Jackson's unrehearsed and unapproved display went far beyond what is acceptable standards for our broadcast network. We apologized immediately to our audience, and I apologize here again to all of you.
TOM BEARDEN: As a result of the Super Bowl, CBS used a five-minute delay on the Grammy Awards this past Sunday night. He said the network is also looking for other ways to prevent a repeat performance.
MEL KARMAZIN: The problem, we believe, is the current vagueness of how indecency is defined, and it's exasperated by the lack of clear policy direction from the FCC.
Is the standard in Las Vegas the same standard that's appropriate in Salt Lake City?
TOM BEARDEN: As for the NFL's role, Commissioner Tagliabue said there was plenty of blame to share.
PAUL TAGLIABUE: I don't think we in the NFL did enough, and we didn't work closely enough with CBS to avoid the half-time show that went on the air. I think with the benefit of behind sight we all agree with that. We did not want to have this kind of a show. And we will not have it again.
TOM BEARDEN: Karmazin says he thinks the broadcast channels do rise to a different standard than cable channels.
MEL KARMAZIN: I think a parent has the ultimate ability to take any channels that somebody finds them object on and say I don't want them in my home. All you need to do is tell your cable company or satellite provider, I don't want that channel.
TOM BEARDEN: Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, in a hearing on the same subject, agreed consumers must be prepared to turn off any offensive channels.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Congress should require cable and satellite operators to offer a la carte programming.
Let people pick and pay for only those channels they want in order to save consumers money and empower those who are offended by some of today's program offerings.
TOM BEARDEN: FCC Chairman Powell cautioned that the standards are different and further study is needed.