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Two-Faced Viacom

Speaking at a recent black-tie dinner sponsored by the Media Institute, Viacom executive chairman Sumner Redstone harshly condemned the Federal Communications Commission for imposing fines against indecent television. He claimed it's all a violation of constitutionally-protected free speech. "Give the government the tools to punish those it doesn't like or silence what is doesn't want to hear and you undermine democracy."

He also blasted the owners of the public airwaves for the temerity to protest his programming. "We find ourselves in a world where increasingly and alarmingly a couple thousand form complaints from people condemning a show that they have never watched can result in an indecency fine 10 times higher than a year ago."

The entertainment news media predictably marched in step to the tune of their Pied Piper. Variety reported Redstone "found entertainment and news execs are 'living with a great deal of fear' thanks to increased government censorship." Broadcasting and Cable magazine found a warning that "the fear of an FCC content crackdown is taking its toll in self-censorship." Multichannel News summarized that Redstone said the FCC "has introduced a climate of fear where the preferences of relatively few people are dictating popular tastes."

In case anyone thinks the Hollywood press isn't a very willing stenographer for the entertainment media, Broadcasting & Cable reporter John Eggerton waved his pom-poms on his weblog: "I forgot to sufficiently praise Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone for standing up to the D.C. forces of decency earlier this week, a bulwark of sorts against an onslaught of content controllers...You tell 'em."

None of these reports on Redstone's remarks included any reaction from those Americans - which is to say, the vast majority of American public opinion - who hold that televised indecency is a growing national problem and scandal. More importantly, none of these reports told the full story. Redstone and Co. are loudly and piously proclaiming to the court of public opinion a commitment to stop the indecency on television while simultaneously, stealthily, feverishly maneuvering in the courts to insure they will never be held accountable for the indecency they want to put on the public airwaves.

Look no further than Exhibit A in the TV indecency debate: Janet Jackson's peek-a-boob stunt at the 2004 Super Bowl, airing before the largest television audience of the year, stuffed with millions of sports-loving children. There was a national uproar, and when dragged before Congress for an explanation, then-Viacom executive Mel Karmazin apologized and pledged before the packed hall that his network would enact a "zero tolerance policy" against indecency.

In response to this and a mountain of other potential violations pending regarding profane or indecent material the network had been airing, Viacom entered into a consent decree with the FCC in November of 2004. In this formal settlement, Viacom agreed to pay $3.5 million in fines and adopt a "company-wide compliance plan for the purpose of preventing the broadcast of material in violation of the Indecency Laws."

Had Viacom lived up to its promises, the discussion would be over. But there was Redstone giving that tired, self-serving speech about the First Amendment, with his fans in the entertainment press dutifully applauding, for one simple reason: Viacom never honored its commitment and, I think it's safe to say, never had any intention of making good on its word.

Where is the evidence that anything in the compliance plan was actually adopted by CBS? Where is the evidence that the network adopted any kind of "zero tolerance policy"? In fact, the evidence suggests that Viacom deliberately did just the opposite.

Within a few short weeks of signing the consent decree, CBS blatantly violated the consent decree by boldly re-airing one of the programs that had been protested, an episode of "Without a Trace" with a teen orgy scene. That's what drew the heavy FCC fines Redstone is now protesting. Also that same month, also in defiance of its signed agreement to institute broadcast delays to prevent cursing, a CBS "Early Show" segment featured a cast member from "Survivor" hurling the word "bull-s***ter" - without being bleeped.

Viacom agreed to not seek judicial review of the terms of the consent decree. Viacom is now in federal court with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of indecency law and the FCC's ability to enforce it. Thus, on one day, Viacom makes a legal admission of airing indecent content, then on another, turns around and claims in legal proceedings that nothing they have aired is indecent.

Viacom breached this consent decree from the beginning, cynically and deliberately. In that vein it was perfectly appropriate for Sumner Redstone to deliver the speech he gave. It is unfortunate that no one in the entertainment "news" media found it newsworthy that in the final analysis, it was all a pile of bunk.