Pay for Play

Viacom would rather pay than fight. By agreeing to pay $3.5 million to protect its licenses, place a time delay on all live programming, suspend or fire employees who run afoul of the FCC, and hold classes in indecency compliance, the media giant has virtually surrendered. Viacom has gone from feisty combatant against the FCC to a symbol of what Washington's clampdown has done to the industry.

Viacom had already enacted some of those measures voluntarily as part of its response to Washington's hissy fit over skin and swearing. Now it has made those safeguards an official part of its deal with the FCC. Does paying off the FCC to the tune of $3.5 million (like Clear Channel paying $1.75 million and Emmis paying $300,000) amount to protection money? You bet it does.

Some of the fines Viacom settled involve the wildly popular Howard Stern and CSI, one of the most-watched shows of this or any other season and the one CBS Chairman Les Moonves has called the best programming purchase CBS ever made.

These are programs that CBS/Infinity wants to continue airing, but to do so, it must give up to the government some of its control over programming. It's already losing Stern to satellite radio because he feels, correctly, that he can't survive on commercial radio, unless Viacom's Infinity Radio streamlined the process and had a weekly deposit added automatically into the FCC's bank account.

What is wrong with this picture? Everything.

Viacom may now have joined the line of broadcasters paying up to stay in business, but it has taken its compliance to a whole new level with the blanket delay now set in regulatory stone.

Will other networks be able to resist following suit? We hope so, but don't bet the farm on it. NBC has already put in a time delay on NASCAR races after an errant s-word was uttered, and the network may delay college football after a quarterback exclaimed that he was f-ing amazed he had led his team back from five touchdowns down to beat Notre Dame. Imagine the viewers scarred by that heinous utterance!

Yes, Viacom is still going to fight the Janet Jackson fine, but it is hard to give it the moral high ground now that the company has given away so much territory. In theory, had Viacom's new blanket delay been policy earlier, the world would not have been traumatized by the brief glimpse of her right breast during the Super Bowl.

Viacom last week acted voluntarily, but it clearly calculated the benefit of a full-out fight for the First Amendment vs. the cost of losing its licenses and livelihood. Sadly, it is not a small price, and Viacom execs know it.

As it is now, or will be soon, CBS, UPN and Infinity stations will be 10 seconds late with everything, from the copter report during rush-hour traffic to President Bush's press conferences, even to bulletins if terrorists strike again or a hurricane is roaring into Fort Lauderdale.

In reality, the delay means no profanities (or presumed indecent liberties with language or kinda/sorta gross talk) shall pass the Viacom/FCC gatekeepers.

We are reminded that NBC once censored Jack Paar for using the term “water closet” (that's a toilet, in case you don't know) on The Tonight Show. That was 1960. This is 1984. Oops, make that 2004.