Brought to you by the Parents Television
CBS Breaks Its Decency Pledge
Part 1 of 2
BY CHRISTOPHER GILDEMEISTER
On August 1st of this
year, the major broadcast television networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) banded together
and filed briefs supporting the Fox network’s pending case before the Supreme
Court. The other networks joined with Fox in proclaiming that there should be
absolutely no restrictions on the contents of television broadcasts whatsoever,
and that any and all legislation relating to decency on the public airwaves
should be completely overturned.
That the Fox network would take such
a position is unsurprising. From the network’s earliest days, it has championed
“edgy” and offensive material (the network’s first – and for several years, only
– hit was the raunchy sitcom Married with Children); and in many ways,
though now two decades old, Fox seeks to retain the image of a hip
The CBS television network, however,
is different. With a history reaching back to the earliest days of commercial
radio, and with eight decades of offering solid entertainment to the American
people, it is in some ways surprising that the network would join such a suit.
At times, CBS has demonstrated its understanding of the concept of responsible
broadcasting: in the wake of the Columbine school shootings, CBS President Les
Moonves famously stated, "Anyone who
thinks the media [have] nothing to do with [youth violence] is an idiot," (The
Washington Post, May 19, 1999); and after radio talk-show host Don Imus
uttered his racist remarks denigrating the Rutgers women’s basketball team,
Moonves cancelled Imus in the Morning with the statement,
"From the outset, I believe all of us
have been deeply upset and revulsed by the statements that were made on our
air…There has been much discussion of the effect language like this has on our
young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this
society. That consideration has weighed most heavily on our minds as we made our
(The New York Times, April 13, 2007).
Yet CBS’ responsible judgment is a sometime thing.
Throughout its history, CBS has also revealed at times
a confusing corporate schizophrenia as to where its priorities lie and what its
values are. Over the years CBS has often seemed like a polite preppy
valedictorian who enjoys the admiration of friends and parents, yet who
desperately craves the “bad-boy” cachet of the delinquent. It is this darker
side of CBS which for the last four years has been in the ascendant.
This latest era of defiance began
with the Super Bowl halftime show on February 1st, 2004. On that live
broadcast, the infamous Janet Jackson breast-baring striptease (subsequently
dubbed a “wardrobe malfunction” by the network) took place.
The striptease took place in front of 90 million
people – including millions of children. It became the single largest news story
for weeks on end, even though the nation was at war. It shocked the millions of
unsuspecting families and children in the audience – and seemed to fly in the
face of federal broadcast decency laws. As a result, the Federal Communications
Commission rightly levied a fine against the network for its indecent broadcast.
Yet despite the overwhelming
public outrage which accompanied the event, CBS was initially unapologetic and
even defiant. In the months following this broadcast, CBS President Les Moonves
made a series of statements boasting that his network would continue to offend
anyone it chose: “We still encourage our producers to walk the edge and tell
edgy stories,” (AP, July 19, 2004); “We think the idea of a fine for [the Super
Bowl striptease] is patently ridiculous, and we're not going to stand for it.
We're going to take that to the courts if it happens," (AP, July 19, 2004); “We
will vigorously defend our right to produce such content as some may deem too
controversial,” (Business Week online, July 20, 2004).
Yet as the outcry grew and CBS became aware of
the unpopularity of its stance, the network began to modify its viewpoint.
"While we regret that the incident occurred and have apologized to our viewers,
we continue to believe that nothing in the Super Bowl broadcast violated
indecency laws," the network said on its website September 22nd.
This statement of course begs the question: if
you feel that you have done nothing wrong, why would you “regret” doing it? And
why would you “apologize?” In effect, CBS was telling the Super Bowl’s 90
million viewers, “We’re sorry it hurt when we punched you in the face. If you
get out of the way next time, maybe it won’t hurt.”
But desperate to mollify angry Americans (and
advertisers), on November 23, 2004, Viacom – then the owners of the CBS
television network –admitted that they had been responsible for airing indecent
programming in the past, and paid the FCC $3.6 million dollars in past fines
(though this payment did not include the fine for the Super Bowl striptease,
since the network still maintained it did nothing wrong by showing nudity on
live TV). CBS also signed a consent decree with the FCC admitting their
wrongdoing. The network committed to a detailed plan of future compliance with
federal broadcast indecency regulations, including an agreement to suspend
employees responsible for any future airing of indecent material. In exchange,
the FCC dismissed all the outstanding indecency complaints against Viacom.
It must be stated here that CBS chose to
enter this agreement – it was not forced upon them. The network chose to
admit wrongdoing; chose to pay a fine; chose to make the FCC, and
by extension, American viewers a promise. CBS promised not to air indecent
programming in the future.
The network’s subsequent
actions showed exactly what a promise from CBS is worth…as will be shown in the
next TV Trends.
This column was compiled from reports by the Parents
Television Council’s Analysis staff.