The Federal Communications Commission last Wednesday proposed to fine twenty 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.
The FCC responded to more than 500,000 complaints about the Feb. 1 broadcast produced by MTV, like the CBS stations, a division of Viacom Inc.
The FCC fined each CBS station a maximum $27,500 for airing Jackson’s fleeting display of nudity during the 6 a.m to 10 p.m. window when federal rules ban indecent programming.
The FCC declined to punish more than 200 independent CBS independent 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 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.
Viacom’s response: “We are extremely disappointed in the ruling. While we regret that the incident occurred and have apologized to our viewers, we continue to believe that nothing in the Super Bowl broadcast violated indecency laws. Furthermore, our investigation proved that no one in our company had any advance knowledge about the incident. We are reviewing all of our options to respond to the ruling.”
The $550,000 fine was the largest assessed for a television indecency violation. Nevertheless, the decision to limit the fines to CBS O&Os and just for Jackson’s so-called wardrobe malfunction was controversial, even though the agency’s ruling was unanimous.
FCC 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 statement.
FCC commission Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat expected to the leave the agency in a matter weeks, called the fine “a slap on the wrist” that would force CBS to yield revenue equal to “7½ 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 CBS 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 licensee 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 FCC 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 at some point can take the FCC 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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