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As Super Bowl Furor Recedes, Complaints of On-Air Indecency Dwindle

A key watchdog group is focusing elsewhere, but broadcasters also are being more cautious.

November 07, 2005|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the month after Janet Jackson's breast was bared on CBS during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, the Federal Communications Commission was so deluged with indecency complaints that they averaged 13 a minute.

Today, what was a flood isn't exactly a trickle -- still about 70 complaints a day. But the frenzy over on-air indecency has cooled.

Credit mainly the lack of a high-profile incident triggering widespread indignation. In addition, broadcasters say they are more cautious, radio shock jocks are being told to tone it down or are moving to satellite radio, and anti-indecency groups aren't flooding the FCC with as many complaints.

"As long as there isn't another Janet Jackson-type Super Bowl incident, the public's already short attention span will remain focused in other places," said lawyer Alex N. Vogel, a lobbyist for CBS parent Viacom Inc.

Much of the plunge in complaints stems from a drop in filings by the Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council, a public interest group that single-handedly helped push the number to 1.4 million last year. It has been estimated that the group, which bombarded the agency over the Internet, accounted for 90% of the complaints.

Officials of the group say it hasn't made a conscious effort to scale back indecency complaints but is turning its attention to issues such as television violence.

"We are just being more judicious about what we complain about," said Dan Isett, the organization's director of corporate and government affairs.

Critics of the council contend that its orchestrated campaign created the misimpression of a widespread uprising among viewers, noting that many of the shows the group lambastes, such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Desperate Housewives," command huge ratings.

"This assumption that everybody jumped in lock step to some moral value that took over America is false," said Jim Dyke, executive director of the industry-funded website TV Watch (

"There are tens of millions of people who are watching these shows that a handful of people complain are indecent," he said.

Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, said the indecency frenzy lost momentum.

"Historically, the bulk of indecency complaints have been the consequence of campaigns by a handful of organizations rather than a spontaneous outpouring of individuals," Kaplan said. "It's hard to sustain a moral panic in the context of real natural disasters like the tsunami, the Iraq war and political corruption."

Nonetheless, broadcasters are monitoring their material more closely. Last year, the FCC recommended a record $7.7 million in fines, including a $550,000 penalty for the Super Bowl incident that CBS is appealing.

This year the FCC has recommended none, although the agency is expected to act soon on pending complaints and could levy some substantial penalties. Complaints being looked at include one involving shock jock Howard Stern and an obscenity allegedly uttered during a Live 8 concert broadcast on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC.

Florida lawyer Jack Thompson, who has filed hundreds of indecency complaints in the last decade, said he believed the fines succeeded in getting the attention of broadcasters.

"If you put up a speed trap in a community and the word gets out that the cops are there, people eventually slow down," Thompson said.

Vincent Malcolm, general manager of KTLA-TV Channel 5 in Los Angeles (owned by Tribune Co., also parent of The Times), said the station closely scrutinized programming from independent producers and used a delay for live sports.

"We are much more cautious now than we were," Malcolm said.

Thomas Mandel, president of Rubber City Radio Group in Akron, Ohio, said he also had been more active in policing potentially offensive broadcasts.

Mandel ordered his staff to review every album in the station's music library for lyrics that might offend listeners. When one of his stations aired a syndicated radio program from Fox Sports Net Inc. that made reference to white women having sex with black National Basketball Assn. star Shaquille O'Neal, Mandel complained to a Fox Sports executive.

"I told him that this was inappropriate, that there was a line that needs to be drawn," he said.

Another reason for fewer complaints is that some of the raunchiest radio personalities are moving away from broadcast stations. Stern is taking his show to Sirius Satellite Radio Inc., and the duo "Opie and Anthony" now air on XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc.'s system.

It takes just a single documented complaint to the FCC to trigger an indecency review. The agency defines broadcast indecency as "patently offensive" material that depicts "sexual or excretory organs or activities." Shows aired between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are likely to be in the broadcast audience, are subject to enforcement. Stations can be fined as much as $32,500 for each violation.

Last year, Bill Wippel, a 70-year-old public relations consultant in Normandy Park, Wash., filed a complaint after the Jackson incident, which he said inappropriately blindsided viewers with offensive material.

Today he believes there is less indecency on the air, but only because the big media companies are pragmatic.

"Indecency will lay low for a while because it's a political football now," Wippel said. "The big conglomerates don't want to make any waves."

Lisa Rolfs, a Mounds View, Minn., saleswoman who wrote a letter to her local paper last year complaining about Jackson's antics, said she was skeptical that broadcasters would show restraint.

The mother of two boys, ages 5 and 7, Rolfs said parents still must be vigilant.

"I'm in favor of free speech, but I just don't think the networks care about our children," she said. "I just think we have to draw the line somewhere. It seems today like anything goes."

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