FCC Commissioner Speaks Out on Super Bowl Scandal

Michael Copps was used to hearing complaints, even before the Janet Jackson Super Bowl halftime scandal.

But the commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission — one of five appointed by the president to five-year terms — says after the singer's on-air “wardrobe malfunction,” the FCC has received more than 200,000 complaints regarding the MTV-produced halftime concert.

A parishioner at St. Mary's Parish in Old Town Alexandria, Va., and the father of five children, Copps is very concerned about the direction of the media. He spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake from his office in Washington, D.C.

Your family is active in your parish, I understand.

My biggest memory has been the pride you feel as your kids go through their first confession and Communion and the high state of nerves, and the high feeling of happiness once they've done that.

We've been at St. Mary's Parish in Old Town Alexandria, Va., since 1976. My wife is the parish secretary there. Our children have been baptized there, our sons have been altar boys there, and two of our children have been married there. We've spent 25 continuous years of Catholic elementary school getting our children through eighth grade there. Four of them have attended Catholic high schools.

That makes it a meaningful experience, seeing your children immersed in it and a part of it their entire lives.

Did you watch the Super Bowl with your family?

I was at my newly married son's house in Georgetown with my 16-year-old daughter. You should be able to watch and enjoy the game rather than worrying about what's coming next — whether it's a violent commercial or a commercial about erectile dysfunction.

That's not the way it should be. It detracts from the sport. We should be talking about what a great game it was, particularly the second half, rather than talking about what happened during half-time.

What was your reaction to the halftime show?

I had to drive my daughter home during halftime, so I missed it. I've seen it many times since. It's been a very galvanizing event because there is so much outrageous and trashy stuff on TV, some of it in even less taste than what we saw there. Yet here you had people gathered with their families.

I've been trying to get my colleagues interested in indecency for three years. They have responded that people can turn it off, use a V-chip or send their children to their bedrooms. In this instance, the V-chip wouldn't have saved anything. The Kaiser Foundation has said that two-thirds of kids have a TV in their own room. Pretty soon children will have their own recorders and will be able to record it and watch it the next day.

It's a sad situation. When I first got here, I called it the “race to the bottom.” You begin to wonder if there is a bottom to it. We have done a gosh-awful job of enforcing the indecency statute.

With the increase in indecent material, why has it taken the FCC so long to respond?

I don't know that they've responded yet. We'll see how quickly they respond and what they do. There are other complaints sitting down there and they're taking too long. It hasn't been a priority around here that it deserves to be.

What do you see as the primary cause for the rise in indecent material?

One cause is that we haven't done our job, so there's no fear of us enforcing the statutes. Another cause is greater consolidation in the media with fewer people owning more and more outlets. I begged my colleagues to examine whether the rising tide of indecency was tied to the rise of consolidation, but they didn't even address the question. I hope that we can come back and take a look at that.

We have 50 years of research showing the correlation between television violence and kids’ behavior. We need to grapple with excessive violence as indecency. It's every bit as bad as excessive sexual content.

How many complaints does the FCC receive in a given year?

Last year we received 240,000.

When I first got here, if 500 people wrote about an incident, they would count it as one complaint. Now we count everything that comes in. We've received about 200,000 e-mails on the Super Bowl halftime alone, so I expect to see that number go way up this year.

What happens to these complaints?

Complaints go to the enforcement bureau. They look at it and determine whether they have enough information to proceed. They used to expect that the complainant would supply a tape or transcript, but now they don't require that. If they think there is enough cause to look into it, they will send a letter of inquiry to the station and ask for whatever information they think they need.

What can the FCC do to better curb this kind of material?

We have an indecency standard that's been upheld by the courts, so we don't have to debate the policy, we need to enforce it. We take an oath to implement the law. Last year, there were 240,000 consumer complaints, yet we issued only three notices for apparent liability.

Now that we have a new commitment, I pray that it's a genuine commitment.

I will believe that the commissioners are sincere when we send up some of these cases for possible license revocation and we assess fines that go beyond the cost of business.

Viacom has been cited many times for different programs on different channels, but currently, they can pay the fines and then pocket the profits on one 30-second advertisement that airs during the Super Bowl. If we could send a couple of these to hearings for license revocation, the broadcasters would get the message real quick.

We could enforce the statute and fine for every utterance on a channel.

If, for example, a shock jock on the Clear Channel network says 10 offensive things, we could fine them for every utterance rather than fining them one time for $27,500. That could add up to $750,000 or $1 million real quick.

We also should be making the FCC more user-friendly for people to access and use our system and not put so much of the burden on them. Once it becomes a priority, there are things we can do.

Is a code of conduct a possibility?

We used to have in this country for many, many years a voluntary code of broadcaster conduct. It lasted in radio from the 1920s to the 1980s and on TV from the 1950s to the 1980s.

There was a narrow part of the code dealing with advertising that was thrown out by the court. When that happened, the broadcasters took the opportunity to waltz away from the code.

I'd like to see us have an industry-sponsored code of conduct for radio, television and cable. In 1997-98 the Justice Department responded positively that a code would still be legal, so I would like to see the industry step up to the plate to do that.

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.