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CBS Breaks Its Decency Pledge

Part 1 of 2




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 “envelope-pushing” network.


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 decision," (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.


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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