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Indecency hearing shifts to Super Bowl halftime show

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Broadcasting    

Indecency hearing shifts to Super Bowl halftime show

  • The House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet heard testimony from the NFL and Viacom about this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, which included an incident involving Janet Jackson’s exposed breast.

Feb. 12, 2004 — National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Viacom President Mel Karmazin testified before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet yesterday about this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, in a hearing called before the game took place.

The various musical performances — which included pop star Justin Timberlake tearing off part of singer Janet Jackson’s top, exposing her right breast on live national television — drew hundreds of thousands of complaints and the ire of the Federal Communications Commission.

The House Subcommittee is debating the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, a bill written by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), that would increase the maximum fine for indecency 10-fold, from $27,500 to $275,000. Yesterday’s testimony from Tagliabue and Karmazin was part of the hearing on the bill’s potential viability.

While both men expressed regret over the Super Bowl incident, each shied away from definitively endorsing Upton’s bill. Tagliabue refrained from commenting on the bill, saying the NFL should not get involved in such matters. However, Karmazin warned that H.R. 3717 could destroy small broadcasters.

Karmazin, who received the majority of the subcommittee’s questions, said a large problem today is “the current vagueness of the FCC standard of indecency,” which he referred to as “exasperating.” He later asked, “Is the standard in Las Vegas the same as the standard in Salt Lake City?”

If broadcasters simply knew the specific indecency rules, Karmazin added, they would be less inclined to violate them.

Responding to a host of criticisms from the bipartisan committee, chaired by Upton, both Tagliabue and Karmazin expressed regret over the halftime show — which included crotch-grabbing, sexually explicit lyrics and singer Kid Rock appearing on stage wearing a poncho made from an American flag. Tagliabue, flanked by NFL owners Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers, said he felt like he was “kicked in the stomach” when he turned to watch the halftime celebration on TV.

In their opening remarks, members of the subcommittee talked about broadcasters’ recent “race to the bottom,” with many referring to Jackson and Timberlake’s stunt as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) levied perhaps the most stinging criticism on Tagliabue and Karmazin. “In the same way that the Enron scandal highlighted unacceptable corporate financial behavior, Viacom’s support of ‘shock jocks’ and allowing a tasteless Super Bowl halftime performance to be broadcast nationwide has become an entertainment industry scandal,” she said.

“You knew what you were doing,” Wilson added. “You knew that shock and indecency creates a buzz that moves market share and lines your pockets.”

Karmazin disagreed. If Viacom, which owns CBS, was only concerned about making money, he said, Jackson and Timberlake’s stunt would have run much longer than three fourths of a second, adding “three fourths of a second longer than it should have run.”

“We were duped,” Karmazin said, noting Viacom had no prior knowledge of the show’s racier moments. In response to the halftime performances, CBS implemented a five-second tape delay during its broadcasting of the Feb. 8 Grammy Awards.

(H.R. 3717) LH

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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