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CBS's Other Mess

CBS has been suffering from an East Coast meltdown based upon an incredibly sleazy forgery scandal, and just as it attempted to jump-start the damage control machine with an independent outside investigation, the other shoe dropped on the West Coast. Janet Jackson's Super Bowl bare-breast scandal returned to the headlines when the Federal Communications Commission announced an unprecedented $550,000 fine for indecency. Twenty Viacom-owned CBS affiliates were each assessed the maximum $27,500 fine.

At first glance, the FCC's unanimous decision, endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans, looks tough. This fine for broadcast television content is just as much a network TV first as bare breasts on CBS. But it doesn't go far enough.

For starters, this fine is almost insignificant to the Viacom empire when you consider it represents about seven seconds of commercial time during the Super Bowl broadcast. It averages out to about a dollar per complaint for the more than 542,000 complaints that flooded into the FCC after the Super Bowl. This underlines yet another reason why Congress needs to increase these fines at least tenfold. A "maximum" fine that doesn't hurt one whit is a meaningless proposition.

The FCC is punishing CBS-owned affiliates, but more than 200 other independently owned affiliate stations were not fined, since the regulators felt they had no real decision-making power in the surprise that CBS aired. The problem with that argument is that it's irrelevant. All licensed stations, network-owned or affiliated, have a legal obligation to uphold community standards. Ignorance is no excuse: you break the law, you suffer the consequences.

The FCC also limited fines to the specific event of Jackson's right breast being exposed in a "wardrobe malfunction" when singer Justin Timberlake ripped away Jackson's brassiere. Commissioners failed to address the entire sex-drenched parade before America's largest annual TV audience, an audience filled with millions of children. The FCC failed to address Nelly repeatedly grabbing his crotch as he sang his hit "Hot in Herre," which asks a girl to "take off all your clothes," the rapper Kid Rock's lyrics about hookers, and Timberlake singing to Jackson "gonna have you naked by the end of this song" (which led to you know what).

Knock-kneed FCC Chairman Michael Powell protested that moving to sanction other parts of the obscene halftime show would make the agency a "national nanny-arbiter of taste, values and propriety." How is the fining of one obscene performance an act of a "nanny," and the fining of another proper?

For its part, embattled CBS issued a muffled response, still playing the innocent. Back in July, Viacom Co-President Les Moonves called the idea of fines "patently ridiculous" and vowed to appeal them as a perilous threat to free speech. Moonves also claimed strangely that the FCC had "rushed to judgment" as it was taking more than half a year to reach a decision. CBS has promised to appeal - but do they really want two simmering CBS scandals going on for months?

Luckily for America, the FCC didn't buy the notion that CBS had no idea it was about to stun the country from one football-crazy coast to the other. It's easy to forget that MTV - CBS's sister corporation that produced this debacle - almost immediately boasted about the stunt on its Web site: "Jaws across the country hit the carpet at exactly the same time...a kinky finale that rocked the Super Bowl to its core," the network oozed. "MTV was Super Bowl central, so armchair quarterbacks, fair weather fanatics and fans of Janet Jackson and her pasties were definitely in the right place." Only when the full force of outrage hit did CBS and MTV start playing dumb about what they had done.

For her part, Janet Jackson has gone from apologetic to ridiculous, even by Jackson family standards. She told the gay men's magazine Genre that "I truly feel in my heart that the president wanted to take the focus off himself at that time and I was the perfect vehicle to do so at that moment."

No comment.

Parents are angry, but from Hollywood's assault on moral standards. Sixty-three percent of parents surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they favor new regulations to limit the amount of sex and violence in TV shows during the early evening hours when children are more likely to be watching. The Kaiser survey also found that more than half of all parents, 52 percent, said they would like to see federal regulators apply content standards to increasingly sleazy cable stations as well.

CBS should pay this fine and clean up its act, coast to coast.