News Article

Nipple Effect

The FCC steps into the censorship booby trap.

The boob has legs! Here's the fallout from Janet Jackson's Super Bowl halftime, um, fallout:

-- The Grammys were broadcast on a five-minute decency delay by CBS; the Oscars will follow suit with a five-second lapse.

-- NBC ordered an edit on ER: An unsexy shot of an 80-year-old patient's bosom was cut.

-- NYPD Blue was asked by ABC to tone down a sex scene.

-- CBS left Without a Trace without a trace of skin after cutting a shot of a man's naked butt.

-- MTV has said they will move Britney and her jiggly ilk to the late-night hours.

And all of this comes on the heels of a State of the Union address in which the President declared war on ''the negative influence of the culture.'' Is it any wonder some see a new age of censorship dawning? Says one CBS source, ''pixilators are operating at Code Red levels.''

Some bigwigs feel as if they're watching a rerun. ''You can set your clock every four years for Washington to attack the world of Hollywood and TV,'' says a former network president. One TV producer thinks industry honchos ''won't change the programming because they know this will be over in three months, and it takes nine months to get programming through the pipeline. By then, this will be over.''

Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, believes this congressional activity is mere nip service: ''Look at the Tipper Gore hearings [in the mid-'80s]. What came of that? Rap is as aggressive in content as ever.''

Such skepticism comes as no surprise to Michael Copps of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an agency famous for having more bark than bite: ''People don't exactly quake in their boots about the FCC, but now they're starting to perk up their ears a little bit, because they think there's different sounds coming out of here -- and there are.'' Those sounds include a proposed bill -- passed with wide bipartisan support by a congressional subcommittee -- that would allow the FCC to raise indecency fines tenfold, to $275,000.

Copps would like to push even further. He maintains that the FCC, which is mandated to police only the broadcast airwaves, will soon be able to take on cable. ''If [cable networks] are running around blithely saying, 'We're exempt' from regulations for indecency, I think they're kidding themselves,'' he says. But cable regulation may be too much for Congress. Rep. Fred Upton, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, who proposed this indecency bill two weeks before the Super Bowl, believes that cable may come up with a voluntary behavior code on its own. But, he adds, including cable in his indecency bill ''would probably raise some serious objections that could threaten [its] passage.''

The FCC's ultimate threat has always been to revoke a network or radio station's license, a red flag Copps and Upton both plan on raising more often...although at varying heights. ''Sending something to a license revocation hearing would convince folks that we're serious,'' says Copps. ''You only have to do that once or twice, and the level of our entertainment would probably go up strikingly.'' Upton isn't quite as steadfast: ''One of the things we may look at, if you're a repeat offender, [is] a discussion about going through a license revocation proceeding -- not necessarily happening, but at least sending it to a panel.''

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