Clearing The Air

Last year's Super Bowl was highlighted by perhaps the most famous dance since Salome and her seven veils cost John the Baptist his head, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Axelrod for Sunday Morning.

By those standards, Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" was cheap—costing Viacom only $550,000. But it did trigger an incalculable amount of public outrage.

"The infamous Super Bowl halftime show which was clearly offensive and outrageous... is just the latest example of a growing list of deplorable incidents over the nation's airwaves," said Michael Powell, who was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which is tasked with enforcing the nation's indecency laws.

Within days, he made a promise to Congress, and issued a warning: "This commission, me and my colleagues, are pushing what I think is the most aggressive enforcement regime in decades, and we're just getting started."

Last February Clear Channel Communications agreed to a $755,000 fine for broadcasting explicit sexual talk, during a show hosted by disc jockey Bubba the Love Sponge.

Then in June, the same company reached a $1.75 million dollar settlement for indecency charges, mostly against Howard Stern, and his repeated references to anal sex.

In November, Viacom, the parent company of CBS, agreed to pay the FCC $3.5 million for complaints against Stern and other broadcasters. It was enough to drive Stern off broadcast radio. He'll take his act to the unregulated world of satellite radio next year.

"They are destroying the business. If anybody wants to do anything revolutionary or different they can't do it," says Stern.

The numbers tell the story: in 2000, the FCC received 111 complaints against roughly 100 programs. Total fines: $48,000. In this last year since Nipplegate, there have been more than a million complaints and almost $8 million in fines.

"I think there's no question that television today is the worst its ever been," says Brent Bozelle, the founder of the Parents Television Council.

One million strong, the PTC generates thousands of complaints to the FCC a year.

He cites an "utter disregard and disdain for values of simple decency. It is the program that has to portray violence in its most graphic, abusive manner. It is the show that has to have sex in your face, as raunchy as descriptive as possible. It's language that has to be as filthy as they can possible get away with."

The PTC monitors television and produces a best and worst list. An FCC complaint form is easily available on its Web site.

A PTC crusade against the Fox show "Married in America," which had scenes of young men licking whipped cream off of Las Vegas strippers, led to a $1.2 million fine.

Yet Bozelle thinks the FCC is too soft. Recently it rejected 36 complaints brought by the PTC.

One, from a show called "Everwood" that aired in September, complains that one character remarks to another: "I got this black eye because of you, dick."

Another, from the show "Fast Lane," complains about the line, "In my next life I'm coming back as a pair of pliers and pull off your nutsack."

Bozelle says some complaints were worse than that, including a program with a prostitute attempting to have sex with a horse.

Starting in the 1930's, the FCC was given power to hand out licenses. Station owners agreed not to broadcast anything that was obscene or indecent.

For years the FCC did just about nothing because nothing happened. Then in 1973, comedian George Carlin came along.

Carlin had a routine called "7 dirty words"—words that could not be spoken over radio or television. A California radio station broadcast it. The FCC threatened, only threatened, action against the radio station. The case went to the Supreme Court, which supported the FCC.

Bozelle says the FCC has done a terrible job overall. "Until three years ago, they have never fined anybody for indecency in the continental United States," he says. "And then Janet Jackson decided to do her strip tease on the network. And what happened? There was an outpouring of outrage."

Outrage is an interesting word, but not all of it is aimed at the FCC for being too late to the game, and not doing enough. On the other side of the huge philosophical canyon currently dividing so many Americans is outrage that the FCC is doing far too much.

"It's not the government's job to regulate content or speech," says Jeff Jarvis, who used to write for TV Guide and People magazine.

Now he's a blogger, writing " Buzzmachine."

"Look at Bozelle's little complaint factory. He has prigs and prudes sitting there in front of the TV, listening for the word "dick". 'Look we found one, let's tell the government!'" he says. "And now you go off and government lawyers say, 'Did they say dick?' Yes they did. And it wasn't a name. And then we have a finding come out saying, 'Well this is going to ruin the morals of the country.' How silly is this?"

Jarvis acknowledges that people want to protect their children, but notes that parents have an on-and-off button, and the responsibility to use it. "You don't need Michael Powell to be your nanny," he says.

If you don't want to have to explain to your six-year-old child what erectile dysfunction is when you watch a football game together, "complain to the manufacturer, complain to your network, complain to somebody else. It's not the government's job," says Jarvis. "That's a dangerous, slippery, oily, miserable slope."

Jarvis felt the culture took a few steps more down that slope when more than 60 ABC affiliates—fearing fines—decided not to show the Oscar-winning movie "Saving Private Ryan" because of its violent language—even though it was a re-broadcast, and the FCC had ruled the language was OK.

Another example from Jarvis: when Fox covered the naked buttocks of a cartoon character in the animated series "The Family Guy."

Of course, if you think about it, the FCC is focusing its efforts to police content on the part of the media universe that's shrinking.

It has no oversight of content on cable TV or satellite radio.

Why? Because we pay for it. We invite it into our homes.

Satellite is where you'll find radio personalities Opie and Anthony. They were a little on guard when we visited their studio.

"What usually happens is that we'll say something really bad and outrageous and they'll have the sound up on that. And then they'll turn it down and do the voice over of 'how horrible are they are'," says Anthony Cumia.

Opie and Anthony were fired from a Boston station in 1997 for an April Fool's joke — they falsely reported the mayor was dead.

In 2002 they were fired from a New York radio station after taking a phone call describing a couple
  • Chris Hawke

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