CBS has been suffering from an East Coast meltdown based upon an incredibly sleazy forgery scandal, and just as it attempted to jumpstart the damage control machine with an independent outside investigation, the other shoe dropped on the West Coast. Janet Jackson's Super Bowl bare-breast scandal returned to the headlines when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced an unprecedented $550,000 fine for indecency. Twenty Viacom-owned CBS affiliates were each assessed the maximum $27,500 fine.
At first glance, the FCC's unanimous decision, endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans, looks tough. This fine for broadcast television content is just as much a network TV first as bare breasts on CBS. But it doesn't go far enough.
For starters, this fine is almost insignificant to the Viacom empire when you consider it represents about seven seconds of commercial time during the Super Bowl broadcast. It averages out to about a dollar per complaint for the more than 542,000 complaints that flooded into the FCC after the Super Bowl. This underlines yet another reason why Congress needs to increase these fines at least tenfold. A "maximum" fine that doesn't hurt one whit is a meaningless proposition.
The FCC is punishing CBS-owned affiliates, but more than 200 other independently owned affiliate stations were not fined, since the regulators felt they had no real decision-making power in the surprise that CBS aired. The problem with that argument is that it's irrelevant. All licensed stations, network-owned or affiliated, have a legal obligation to uphold community standards. Ignorance is no excuse: You break the law, you suffer the consequences.
The FCC also limited fines to the specific event of Jackson's right breast being exposed in a "wardrobe malfunction" when singer Justin Timberlake ripped away Jackson's brassiere. Commissioners failed to address the entire sex-drenched parade before America's largest annual TV audience, an audience filled with millions of children. The FCC failed to address Nelly repeatedly grabbing his crotch as he sang his hit "Hot in Herre," which asks a girl to "take off all your clothes," the rapper Kid Rock's lyrics about hookers, and Timberlake singing to Jackson "gonna have you naked by the end of this song" (which led to you know what).