WASHINGTON - The nation's television and radio broadcasters and the man charged with overseeing them all came under withering attack on Capitol Hill yesterday, when House and Senate hearings on broadcast decency regulations became a caustic - if sometimes calculated - condemnation of a sexed-up Super Bowl and increasingly raunchy programming across the dial.
During the hearings, prompted by the Feb. 1 CBS Super Bowl halftime show that included singer Janet Jackson's breast being exposed, lawmakers from both parties proposed remedies ranging from boosting fines to creating a "three strikes" law that could cost broadcasters their licenses.
They took to task not only broadcasters, represented primarily by Mel Karmazin, head of media giant and CBS television owner Viacom Inc., but the nation's broadcast watchdog, the Federal Communications Commission, and FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
Powell, who testified at the House hearing on the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004, tried to place the blame squarely on broadcasters. He called the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake halftime duet "a new low for prime-time television." Worse, he said, it is part of a growing trend.
"The now infamous display during the Super Bowl halftime show is just the latest example in a growing list of deplorable incidents over the nation's airwaves," Powell told the House subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. "We must take action to protect our nation's children."
Powell is the FCC commissioner most friendly to the broadcasting industry.
Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, two less industry-friendly commissioners, used their testimony to link the rising tide of indecency on the airwaves to increasing concentration of ownership in media companies such as Viacom, which they see as having abandoned public interest in pursuit of higher profits.
"We open the door to unprecedented levels of media consolidation, and what do we get in return?" Copps asked. "More garbage, less real news and progressively crasser entertainment."
Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who is sponsor of the decency act and chairman of the House subcommittee, set the tough-talking tone for the hearing.
"Mainly, what today is about is listening and responding to the American people's concern and clamor for decency," he said. "I believe some broadcasters are engaged in a race to the bottom, pushing the decency envelope in order to distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded entertainment field."
Television and radio seemed to have no friends on Capitol Hill, as one after another, lawmakers teed off on broadcasters. But perhaps such a public venting of outrage was warranted by an incident that resulted in more than 200,000 viewer complaints to the FCC.
"You knew what you were doing," Rep. Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican, said to Karmazin. "You know that shock and indecency creates a buzz that lines your pocket. ... But the American people are fed up with indecency, and you just don't seem to get it."
As he had done before, Karmazin, who testified along with Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the National Football League, apologized for the halftime show but admitted no real culpability, blaming the fiasco on a secret decision by Jackson and her choreographer.
Committee members were at best skeptical.
"I am glad to hear you apologize, but I get the feeling you are apologizing all the way to the bank," Rep. Mary Bono, California Republican, replied.
The two themes sounded most often during the day were the "race to the bottom" cited by Upton and the need for Congress, the FCC and parents to protect American children from irresponsible broadcasters.
There was no shortage of grandstanding at this election-year hearing, as subcommittee members read three hours of prepared statements into the record. But there was more than political theater and post-Super-Bowl catharsis in play.
On the Senate side, Mississippi Republican Trent Lott suggested a "three strikes" law that could result in offending broadcasters losing their FCC licenses. In the House, the near-unanimous support heard yesterday for Upton's bill makes it seem likely that it will become law. It would increase the maximum fine for indecency from $27,500 to $275,000 per offense.
While some termed that "lunch money" for a company such as Viacom, it will make some affiliate stations think about pre-empting network fare if it seems too racy by local standards. And that could have an impact on network profits.
It also appeared yesterday that the timing of the Super Bowl fiasco has at least stalled Powell's drive to further deregulate giant media companies.
The support he had mustered last year to allow more consolidation in the industry seemed gone, with lawmakers calling Upton's bill just a first step in a necessary program of reform.
Powell had a hard time explaining why the FCC received 240,000 complaints last year - up from 14,000 in 2002 - yet took action against broadcasters in only three cases.
But perhaps worse for broadcasters, both lawmakers and FCC commissioners linked concerns about the growth of indecency on the airwaves to deregulation.
"The question before America is whether the coarsening of our media is responsible for coarsening our culture, or vice versa. My answer is both. They feed on each other," FCC Commissioner Adelstein said.
"Media consolidation only intensifies the pressures. Fast-growing conglomerates focus on the bottom line, above all else. I think the FCC should reconsider its dramatic weakening of media ownership limits last summer. ... Broadcasters need to show more corporate responsibility."
The Federal Communications Commission asks that audience members send complaints about obscenity or indecency on television or radio in written form, including the date and time of the broadcast, the call sign of the station involved, and the details and context of the offensive material. Complaints should be mailed to:
FCC Enforcement Bureau, Investigations and Hearings Division 445 12th St. SW Washington, D.C. 20554
To examine recent FCC punitive actions regarding obscene and indecent broadcasting, go online to www.fcc.gov/eb/broadcast/obscind.html.