MTV Under Attack by FCC

Commission, Congress mount campaign for stricter decency standards

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Janet Jackson's Super Bowl flash lasted less than three seconds, but the impact continues to ripple through Viacom, the media giant that broadcast the game. Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, right-wing radio commentators and outraged citizens are calling for stricter decency standards -- and the artists and executives who make a living from edgy music, performances and videos are in retreat.

MTV in particular, which produced the Super Bowl halftime show, is in the midst of a wide-scale re-evaluation of its musical, news and dramatic content. Within a week of the game, MTV -- no stranger to criticism, most recently in response to the Britney Spears-Madonna kiss at the Video Music Awards -- bumped seven music videos out of prime time. One of the videos was singled out for political content: Incubus' "Megalomaniac" included clips of Hitler and people drinking oil. The six others contain sexual content: Spears' see-through bodysuit in "Toxic"; two women kissing in Blink-182's "I Miss You"; a PG-13 roll in the sheets in Maroon 5's "This Love"; and general rump-shaking in Ludacris' "Splash Waterfalls," Cassidy's "Hotel" and the Ying Yang Twins' "Saltshaker." (As of February 15th, MTV reintroduced six of these videos, including an alternate version of Blink-182's clip that doesn't show the same-sex kiss.)

Incubus manager Steve Rennie says that he was disappointed by the decision to bump back "Megalomaniac" but understood that MTV was "responding to some very heavy political pressure."

An MTV News segment on sexual politics has also been delayed until outrage over the Super Bowl dies down, according to MTV staffers. California's Laguna Beach High School pulled out of an agreement to let the network film a reality show based on students' lives. And several record labels are toning down videos currently in production out of fear that they won't be shown, according to industry sources. "The current state of the culture is different," says one label executive who represents prominent hip-hop artists. "It's an election year, and no one wants to be made an example."

MTV executives refused to comment for this article, even to describe programming changes. A spokeswoman would only say, "We have to pay attention to what's happening in the culture."

Other Viacom companies are taking a similar stance. CBS instituted a five-minute tape delay for the Grammys, and now all of Viacom's broadcast properties -- thirty-nine television stations, and more than 185 Infinity radio stations -- are being outfitted with the same capability.

This is widely seen as a reaction to increased political attack. FCC chairman Michael Powell announced on January 13th that he would seek to reverse an FCC decision that let Bono off the hook for swearing at the 2003 Golden Globes. Three pieces of federal legislation aimed at media content quickly followed. The halftime show essentially waltzed into a war zone.

"[Pop culture] has been on a slippery slope for some time," says Rep. Fred Upton, chair of the House's Internet and Telecom Subcommittee. "This was the straw that broke the camel's back." Upton, a Michigan Republican, has been a key player in the fight to halt potentially offensive programming. He sponsored a bill on January 13th that aims to raise fines on broadcasters from $27,500 to $275,000 per violation. The day after the Super Bowl, he also called Viacom president Mel Karmazin to complain about the halftime show -- and since then, Karmazin has taken most of the heat. A February 4th Wall Street Journal editorial -- headlined "Viacom's Porn Channel" -- demanded that Viacom fire MTV president Judy McGrath. And Karmazin received an icy greeting when he testified on February 11th at a congressional hearing on obscenity in the media. Though he emphasized that CBS and MTV knew nothing of the Super Bowl stunt, Karmazin endured an aggressive two-hour interrogation.

Viacom was already seen as a repeat offender, with MTV, Comedy Central, Howard Stern and The Opie and Anthony Show on its payroll. So when Karmazin declared that indecency standards needed to be clarified, Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., could hardly control her anger. "You knew what you were doing," she said of the Super Bowl, with tears in her eyes. "You wanted us to be all abuzz. It lines your pockets."

Wilson, like Upton and many social conservatives in Congress, admits a lack of knowledge about MTV. "I don't have cable," she told Rolling Stone in an interview after the hearing.

And yet, for now, she and other social conservatives retain the upper hand. MTV, along with artists, record labels and other Viacom broadcasters, have decided to play it safe. As the FCC's Super Bowl investigation continues, many inside Viacom are rethinking what to show viewers, while agonizing over why such a brief spectacle won't seem to go away. "They're going after us because they see us as this year's Murphy Brown with a baby," says one MTV staffer. "We're what they think is wrong with America."

Inside the Culture War:

PLAYERS

Mel KarmazinPresident, Viacom (CBS, MTV)
Known for blunt talk, Karmazin was forced to defend the Super Bowl halftime show before a hostile Congress on February 11th. His performance got bad reviews from D.C. insiders.

Judy McGrath
President, MTV Networks
The boss behind MTV's recent ratings surge, McGrath is now a target for right-wing criticism. On February 4th, the Wall Street Journal labeled her "an impresario of soft-core (albeit legal) kiddie porn."

Ludacris
Lonely in late-night
The rapper's "Splash Waterfalls" video -- which includes blurred-out butts and S&M lyrics -- was pulled from prime time after the Super Bowl. It can now be seen only after 10 p.m.

Janet Jackson
Halftime headliner
One breast, two seconds and three apologies later, Jackson is still mired in scandal. She was cut from the Grammys; her new album could suffer from the backlash.

HATERS

Michael Powell
FCC chairman
The media's top cop is on a mission to clean up TV and radio. He is investigating Janet Jackson and Bono while trying to raise obscenity fines to $275,000 per infraction.

Rep. Fred Upton
Chairman, House Telecom subcommittee
A Michigan Republican, Upton was one of the first to lash out against the Super Bowl spectacle. He says he received 3,000 e-mails the week after the Super Bowl demanding cleaner airwaves.

Paul Tagliabue
NFL commissioner
Tagliabue approved the halftime show, then hung Viacom out to dry when he testified before Congress. "We gave the keys to the car to someone else," he said, "and they crashed."

L. Brent Bozell III
President, Family Television Council
William F. Buckley's nephew, Bozell has attacked pro wrestling, Bono and Nickelodeon. He called the Super Bowl a "sleaze parade."

OBSCENE MOMENTS IN AMERICAN MEDIA

Pelvis Protection, 1957
Before Elvis Presley's third and final Ed Sullivan performance, producers tell cameramen to film the King from the waist up only. They comply; Sullivan tells Elvis he's "thoroughly all right."

But He's Naked!, 1969
New Jersey police seize 30,000 copies of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Two Virgins, declaring that the cover's full-frontal nudity is pornographic. Record buyers are more offended by what they hear; Two Virgins never breaks into the Top Fifty.

The Porn Wars, 1986
The Meese Commission, led by Attorney General Edwin Meese III, releases a nearly 2,000-page report linking pornography to violence. Much of the research is later debunked, but the report leads 7-Eleven to pull Playboy and Penthouse -- even though neither has ever been ruled obscene by a court of law.

Parents Against Rock, 1985
Tipper Gore and twenty-one other prominent women form the Parents' Music Resource Center, which calls for labeling offensive music content. Congress holds hearings; the record industry creates a universal warning sticker -- which then becomes a badge of honor for edgy artists.

Crew Cuts, 1990
After 2 Live Crew's As Nasty As They Wanna Be is ruled obscene by a Florida court, hundreds of retailers across the nation refuse to sell the album. At least six states later pass laws declaring the band's music obscene.

Wal-Mart Eats Crow, 1996
Wal-Mart bans Sheryl Crow's second album because the song "Love Is a Good Thing" contains the line "Watch our children while they kill each other/With a gun they bought at the Wal-Mart discount stores." The retailer now refuses to sell controversial albums and requires artists to censor lyrics and cover art.