JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When the Philadelphia Eagles meet the New England Patriots for Super Bowl XXXIX, some television viewers may have more suspense about halftime than the game.
Will the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent actions be enough to keep the game free from “wardrobe malfunctions” and offensive commercials?
It’s been a busy year for the FCC. Viewer complaints about indecency have increased from hundreds just two years ago to more than 1 million last year.
The FCC received more than 200,000 email complaints about last year’s Super Bowl halftime show, in which singer Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed during a performance with Justin Timberlake. Jackson blamed the incident on a “wardrobe malfunction.”
An FCC crackdown has resulted in several million-dollar fines for some of the country’s largest entertainment companies. Fox was fined $1.1 million for an indecent broadcast of “Married by America,” Viacom was fined $3.5 million for offensive content on various shock-jock radio programs, and CBS was fined $500,000 for the Super Bowl halftime fiasco.
Still, many believe the commission hasn’t done enough.
“The FCC has done more than they’ve done in the past, but they’ve done so little previously that it doesn’t take much to improve,” said Lara Mahaney, director of corporate and entertainment affairs with the Parents Television Council. “Indecency is still not a priority at the FCC.”
Even some FCC commissioners agree.
“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,” Commissioner Michael Copps told the Register. “We have done a gosh-awful job of enforcing the indecency statute.”
Just last week, the FCC denied 36 complaints of broadcast indecency leveled against several of television’s prime-time programs.
In order for the commission to take action, broadcast material must meet two standards. First, it must describe or depict sexual or excretory activities or organs, and second, it must be “patently offensive” as measured by contemporary community standards.
According to the FCC, none of the broadcasts that were dismissed last week met the second part of the standard.
However, when the Parents Television Council tried to run newspaper ads featuring the objectionable content, several newspapers — including the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today — wouldn’t accept the ads.
“USA Today told us, ‘We can’t run this. Kids read our newspaper,’” Mahaney said. “The FCC has said that this content is okay for children to see or hear. What community allows these kinds of words in a public gathering?”
Copps, in a statement dissenting from the FCC’s dismissal, said: “Although the Commission recently has begun to take action against indecency on television, some citizens remain concerned that the FCC summarily dismisses their complaints. At the same time, some broadcasters contend that the Commission has not been adequately clear about how it determines whether a broadcast is indecent. Today’s rather cursory decisions do little to address any of these concerns.”
Some critics have charged that a small number of advocacy groups, such as the Parents Television Council, are filing the majority of complaints, urging supporters to file indecency complaints through mass email alerts.
The Parents Television Council disagrees.
According to its records, 224,000 people used the council’s website form in 2004 to file complaints with the FCC, of a total of 1.1 million filed. Based on those numbers, the Parents Television Council filed 21% of the total complaints.
“Where the complaints come from is a moot issue,” Mahaney said. “Of the issues congressmen heard about last year, indecency was in the top three. The only entity that it wasn’t a big deal to was the entertainment community.”
The Church has entered the discussion as well.
In 1998, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a pastoral statement entitled “Renewing the Mind of the Media,” encouraging individuals, families, corporations and the entertainment industry to overcome the exploitation of sex and violence in the media.
“I have no doubt that the media can cause young people — and adults as well — to be confused about what is right and wrong and what behavior is acceptable and what is not,” said Cardinal William Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, in an interview after the release of the pastoral statement.
In addition, in conjunction with the pastoral statement, a five-year campaign that ended last year encouraged individuals to take a “Renewing the Mind of the Media” pledge, trading one hour a week that would have gone to mass media for an hour in prayer for peace.
“We pledge to reject media that produce immoral content and demean the dignity of the human person,” the pledge said. Over the course of the campaign, the bishops collected more than 500,000 signatures through parishes and the Internet.
The bishops have also interacted with the FCC directly. The two previous chairmen spoke to the bishops, and the bishops’ conference has been in contact with the commissioners regarding access issues.
“When your mission, as an executive at a large television network, is to make one quarter more profitable than the last, and you’re not really serving the public, that’s when we have a problem,” said David Early, senior communications officer for the bishops’ conference.
Some parents have not only followed the bishops’ advice, but gone one step further.
Two years ago, tired by what they were seeing on network television, Eric and Audrey Piepmeier decided to get rid of their TV. That meant giving up their favorite family program, “JAG.”
“Even if the programs aren’t exactly harmful, most of the children’s shows are brainless twaddle,” said Audrey Piepmeier, a mother of six from Hutchinson, Minn. “We figured this was a way to make television a non-issue.”
They’ve traded their television for the computer, gathering for pizza-and-movie nights on Friday to watch a family movie together on the computer’s DVD player.
Their children recently watched some television while staying at a hotel with some friends.
“Reacting to the commercials, our 11-year-old son said, ‘They must think that people are really stupid,’” Audrey Piepmeier said. “You couldn’t have that perspective if you were a regular consumer of television.”
“When you look at the Super Bowl halftime show and the ads, we might possibly see tamer content this year,” Mahaney said. “What’s happened over the past year-and-a-half is that parents finally feel like they have a voice.”
Asked whose job it is to regulate the entertainment industry, Mahaney said it’s up to both parents and the industry.
“Parents are 100% responsible that they are doing the best they can to protect their children from indecent content,” Mahaney said. “But, that doesn’t give the entertainment industry the right to air illegal content.”
Tim Drake writes
from Saint Cloud, Minnesota.
- February 6-12, 2005