The Federal Communications Commission Wednesday proposed to fine 20 CBS-owned stations $550,000 combined for violating federal indecency rules by broadcasting singer Janet Jackson’s breast exposure during the Super Bowl halftime show.
Responding to more than 500,000 complaints about the Feb. 1 broadcast -- the halftime show of which was produced by sister Viacom Inc. network MTV: Music Television -- the FCC fined each station a maximum $27,500 for airing Jackson’s fleeting display of nudity during the 6 a.m.-10 p.m. window when federal rules ban indecent programming.
The agency, however, declined to punish more than 200 independent CBS affiliates on the basis that they were not in a position to anticipate that rocker Justin Timberlake would remove a portion of Jackson’s clothing to reveal her naked breast before a national audience of 100 million people, millions of them children.
“The fact that Viacom promoted the halftime show before it aired as one that would be shocking gives credence to their culpability. Unquestionably, Viacom consciously took the risk and, thus, now bears the responsibility,” FCC chairman Michael Powell said in a prepared statement.
The FCC also refused to levy any fines in response to complaints that various bump-and-grind elements of the halftime show also constituted indecency violations.
The $550,000 fine was the largest assessed for a television indecency violation. Nevertheless, the decision to limit the fines to CBS owned-and-operated stations and just for Jackson’s so-called wardrobe malfunction was controversial, even though the FCC’s ruling was unanimous.
Commissioner Michael Copps said that refusing to fine the independent CBS affiliates sent a signal that fines won’t be meted out for programming that local stations don’t produce.
“Some level of fine would have been appropriate for these stations,” Copps said in a prepared statement.
And commissioner Jonathan Adelstein -- a Democrat who is expected to the leave the agency in a matter of weeks -- called the fine “a slap on the wrist” that would force CBS to yield revenue equal to “seven-and-a-half seconds of Super Bowl ad time.”
Adelstein joined Copps in complaining that CBS affiliates were let off the hook, even though he believed that the affiliates were “as much the innocent victims as the families who were stunned to see such gratuitous nudity during a family viewing event.”
Adelstein said the FCC nevertheless set “a puzzling precedent” by failing to hold all licensees accountable.
“The shockwaves are still being felt by this shameful episode. I fear that today we’re responding to a `wardrobe malfunction’ with a regulatory malfunction,” Adelstein said.
Republican FCC commissioner Kevin Martin said the agency the failed to properly analyze complaints that the entire halftime show was indecent.
The FCC formally issued a notice of apparent liability, which CBS may ask the agency to reduce or reverse. CBS, a division of Viacom, at some point can take the commission to federal court.
Les Moonves, co-president of Viacom and CBS chairman, vowed in July to appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Jackson incident overshadowed a dramatic Super Bowl, won by the New England Patriots over the Carolina Panthers 32-29 on a 41-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri with four seconds remaining in regulation time.
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