After Michael Powell, chairman of the government agency that regulates broadcast TV, watched-with his kids-Janet Jackson's indecent finale during a lewd Super Bowl halftime show, he was so offended that he openly talked about levying individual fines for each CBS affiliate in America.
The Federal Communications Commission chairman decided not to go that far, but now Congress has gotten involved, and it looks like the television industry-which prides itself in "pushing the envelope" a little bit more every year in terms of sex, bad language, and nudity-is finally going to be reined in.
Washington has cracked down on broadcasters before, of course. The last round of public outrage led to the prominent display of ratings at the start of each show. This time appears to be different, however. Previous efforts to clean up TV focused mainly on the broadcast networks like NBC, CBS, and Fox. Although the material aired by broadcasters is relatively tame compared to the smut on cable, the TV networks are easier to regulate because the airwaves are "owned" by the public and administered by the government.
Cable, delivered by wires owned by private companies, is another story. Individuals subscribe to cable services with full knowledge, presumably, of the kind of programming they will receive. In the eyes of the law, that makes cable just another communications medium like magazines or newspapers, and the government has always been loath to limit free expression in such media.
But in the wake of public outrage over the Janet Jackson stunt and pop star Bono's use of a vulgar expletive on last year's Golden Globes telecast, both Congress and the FCC appear ready to tighten the screws on all TV programming, both broadcast and cable. Mr. Powell has notified the National Cable and Telecommunications Association that his commission believes the proliferation of cable "has given rise to more opportunities for the worst programming to invade our living rooms." While he acknowledged that broadcasters are the subject of most complaints, "the cable industry cannot completely ignore the discontent."
Before the FCC could increase its regulation of cable companies, Congress would have to specifically broaden the commission's policing powers. Such new laws may be in the offing: Already, both the House and the Senate are holding hearings on the way TV has ignored the indecency regulations currently on the books, and lawmakers from both parties have indicated they expect significant changes.
Last week, the House Commerce Committee grilled the FCC commissioners, representatives from the NFL, and executives from MTV, CBS, and parent company Viacom over what happened at the Super Bowl.
Martin Franks, executive vice president of CBS, asked that the FCC clearly spell out what they are allowed to do and what they are not. The FCC responded that the standards are clear enough as they are.
Already a bill is before the House, sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), that would increase the fines for indecency violations tenfold, from $27,500 to $275,000. But congressmen who have been hearing from outraged constituents may load up that bill to make it even tougher.
Since more and more Americans get their TV through cable, Congress now has to decide whether the new financial penalties should extend to cable channels, as well. If lawmakers decide the answer is yes, the courts are sure to have plenty of questions of their own.
As they used to say on TV: Stay tuned.