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Politics and Economy:
Defining Decency
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FCC and Congress Face-to-Face

In February 2004, panels from both houses of Congress heard testimony from Federal Communications Commission chairman and commissioners on the topic of indecency on the public airwaves, with special attention paid to the now infamous Super Bowl halftime incident. The House committee also heard from Viacom's President and Chief Operating Officer Mel Karmazin, NFL president Paul Tagliabue.

The FCC defines obscene material as describing sexual conduct "in a patently offensive way" and lacking "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." Material defined as indecent is not as offensive but still contains references to sex or excretions.

A recent Gallup poll showed that most Americans say they are offended by sex, violence, and profanity on television. However, less than half of those who saw the Super Bowl halftime show say they were offended by the incident. (Read more about Americans' reaction from the Gallup Organization.)

Some media watchdogs are annoyed that the issue of media concentration is being relegated to the background while indecency issues take center stage. A closer look at the conversations in Congress reveals that the final word on media reform has yet to be written. Read excerpts from the hearings below.

  • On increasing cable options for consumers:

    Senator John McCain (R-AZ): "Gene Kimmelman of Consumer's Union wrote to Senators this week urging Congress to address indecent content on cable and satellite TV. Mr. Kimmelman calls for Congress to take a new approach to offensive content aired over pay television: 'Instead of forcing consumers to buy service tiers of 40, 50, or 75 channels which include networks they never watch or channels they find offensive, Congress should require cable and satellite operators to offer a la carte programming. Let people pick and pay for only those channels they want ... [in order] to save consumers money and empower those who are offended by some of today's program offerings.' Mr. Kimmelman's a la carte suggestion sounds familiar to me, and more persuasive than ever in providing parents control over their television sets."

  • On proposed bills in Congress to increase indecency fines:

    Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) has introduced H.R. 3717, a bill "to increase the penalties for violations by television and radio broadcasters of the prohibitions against transmission of obscene, indecent, and profane language." On February 12, 2004, it was forwarded by the subcommittee to the full committee by voice vote.

    In the Senate, Sam Brownback of Kansas introduced similar legislation, S 2056, asking for a tenfold increase in penalties against those media networks and companies that air material that violates FCC decency guidelines. "Until the penalties are punitive," Senator Brownback says, "there will be little incentive for broadcasters to curb this 'race to the bottom.'"

  • On Congress granting more power to the FCC:

    FCC Chairman Michael Powell: "The time has come for us to work collectively-the Commission, the Congress, the industry and the public to take the necessary steps to prevent allowing the worst that television has to offer from reaching our unsuspecting children. I commit to you that this Commission will continue to put our resources into vigorously enforcing our indecency rules. I urge Congress to assist us in these efforts and urge the industry to do its part to protect our nation's children."

  • On FCC clarifying indecency rules:

    Viacom President Mel Karmazin: "The precedent constantly changes and the standard is not clearly articulated to broadcasters."

    Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA): "We've heard the argument here now that the FCC is the one that ought to redefine the definition of indecency. Perhaps that is true. I find it objectionable that those who have been granted the free use of our airwaves would not see fit to restrain themselves within their own conduct to define conduct that is less than indecent, that is that which we've heard the use of the words crude, inappropriate. It would seem to me that if you have the confidence of the public and wish to maintain it, then you would establish standards and don't require the FCC to set standards defining a constitutional level. You should be above that, because if all you do is race to the bottom of a standard, then this is what we're gonna get. And I believe this is what's being advocated here."

  • On lax enforcement by the FCC:

    Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA): "The paltry fines that the FCC assesses have become nothing more than a joke. They have become simply the cost of doing business for far too many licensees particularly in the radio marketplace. Many stations regard the prospect of a fine as merely the potential slap on the wrist. Washing their mouths out with soap would have a greater deterrent effect than the few and the paltry fines that the Federal Communications Commission currently levies."

    FCC Commissioner Michael Copps: "At the same time that we are not adequately enforcing indecency laws, the commission is dismantling media concentration rules without considering whether there is a link between increasing media consolidation and increasing indecency. It makes intuitive sense that as media conglomerates grow ever bigger and control moves further away from the local community, community standards go by the boards."

  • On the connection between indecency and media concentration:

    Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI): "Indecent and obscene programming on TV and radio are becoming the norm rather than the exception. And local communities and local broadcasters are losing their power to tell the big media conglomerates no. Was the impact of consolidation on indecency ever considered by the FCC before it issued it rules and before the Administration forced greater consolidation on the American people?"

    FCC Commissioner Michael Copps: "I pleaded before we voted on media consolidation last June 2nd, we owe it to our children, let's look to see if there's a connection between the rising tide of consolidation and the rising tide of media indecency. And we did not do that, and I think it was a disservice to our kids."

    FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein: "Just today we heard about Comcast trying to swallow Disney. So it's swallow or be swallowed. How do you avoid being swallowed? You get your stock price up so you can swallow somebody else. How do you do that? It's quarterly results. You have to make as much money as you can every quarter. How do you do that? If it takes pandering, if it takes crassness, if it takes making people eat worms on TV, if it means having people dance in lewd ways, whatever it takes, apparently, these broadcasters are willing to do it. So, there may well be a connection there."

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