It has been a tough week to be a CBS executive. Two days after the news division admitted serious flaws in its blockbuster story about President Bush's National Guard service, the Tiffany network's parent company, Viacom, was hit with a $550,000 fine from government regulators over pop star Janet Jackson's breast-baring moment at the Super Bowl.
Rumored for weeks and announced Wednesday, this ill-considered penalty serves as the exclamation point capping an absurd year of finger-pointing and hysteria over the issue of indecency on television. In countries where sex on TV is commonplace but violence is verboten, people marvel that the Federal Communications Commission can allow CBS's hit series CSI to show dead bodies on camera, while the barest peek at a breast sparks thousands of dollars in fines and months of sanctimonious scoldings.
Citing a record 540,000 complaints from viewers, the FCC's decision to suggest the maximum $27,500 fine against 20 CBS affiliates owned by Viacom was a message that the company "knew or surely should have known what was to come" when Jackson's so-called "wardrobe malfunction" resulted in the unwanted exposure. The network's other 200 or so affiliates, including WTSP-Ch. 10 in St. Petersburg, will not be fined.
Still, even commissioner Michael Copps, in a half-hearted statement endorsing only parts of the decision, noted that CBS charged an average $2-million for every 30-second commercial aired during the Super Bowl. That means the current fine would cost the network about 8 seconds' worth of revenue from one commercial aired during the game, an amount Copps said "will be easily absorbed as the cost of doing business."
The fine also doesn't seem consistent with past FCC decisions. In March, the agency ruled that a profanity shouted spontaneously by U2 vocalist Bono during NBC's Golden Globes telecast last year was indecent, though presumably even Bono didn't know he was going to say it. No fine was levied.
Viewers deserve some warning when TV shows will feature overtly sexual or violent content and some recourse when broadcasters cross the line. But the FCC's failure to articulate a consistent standard for indecency rules and enforcement has fueled confusion and frustration over the issue.
The Janet Jackson penalty only continues a dysfunctional legacy, offering the worst of all worlds: fining a select group of broadcasters a negligible amount for a stunt that lasted only a few seconds and aired largely by mistake. With its current redraft of media ownership rules recently slapped down by both the courts and Congress, the FCC has more important things to consider these days.