Another ‘titillating’ aftermath

Brian Golden

One breast. Modern television and radio communication have been changed forever due to one breast. It should be common knowledge by now that Janet Jackson, an aging pop star, tried to reinvigorate interest in her failing career by exposing her breast on national television for a few seconds during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. Nearly 140 million people witnessed this blatant cry for attention.

The next day, the Federal Communication Commission received numerous phone calls, e-mails and letters complaining about the content of the Super Bowl halftime show. The FCC promised an investigation to determine who was at fault and what type of response was necessary. Regardless of what the decision will be, television and radio will never be the same.

The FCC cannot adequately monitor every form of communication it is responsible for: all local television, network television, local radio and syndicated radio. The FCC waits until receiving complaints about a program.

Once they receive enough complaints, the commission acts to penalize the producers of the program or the distributor of the program; radio stations, television stations, parent companies, shows, or all of the above can be held responsible for one incident. This means the audience has great power. If you don’t like what programs contain, if you find programs to be indecent, then you can complain, have them fined and possibly take them off the air.

This brings up two very interesting questions. First, what is indecent? Unlike some listeners, I don’t find anything wrong with the “Howard Stern Show.” On the other hand, I have been forced once or twice to view “Lifetime,” a television station dedicated to programming for women, and I find the stereotypes of men portrayed in their made-for-TV movies to be offensive. I have trouble understanding what makes Howard Stern’s depiction of women as sexual objects indecent, while “Lifetime’s” depiction of men as cheaters, rapists and abusers seems acceptable.

The second interesting question is, if viewers find the program indecent, why are they watching? Television and radio programs are meant for certain audiences. If you do not like the program and feel the need to complain to the FCC, then the program was not meant for you. If you don’t like it, turn it off.

Paradoxically, however, programs don’t deserve all the blame they receive, either. The stations are just trying to make money, and they have to sell what people want. In this day and age, sex and violence sell. For every complaint the FCC receives, there are probably hundreds of people who are completely happy with the racy and extreme content of their favorite television and radio shows.

Programming is made to keep these people happy, to keep the fans of the shows watching so the stations can continue to charge high prices for advertising. Scantily clad women, for instance, sell more products and keep people more interested in programs than scantily clad men do. One only needs to compare the yearly sales of Playboy, a magazine featuring naked women, to the sales of Playgirl, a magazine featuring naked men. Sales for Playboy outnumber sales of Playgirl about 10 to one, and that trend carries over to television, where scantily clad women reign supreme.

So does that mean radio and TV stations should be free to show whatever content they desire? Absolutely not. Imagine the inappropriateness of pornography following “Friends” on NBC, a live execution of a death row inmate on the nightly news, or an indecent song on the radio during your commute to work. Some things need to be kept off television and radio.

The FCC and Congress have a noble goal. They want to clean up the airwaves. The problem lies in the lack of definition for indecency. A definition needs to be worked out, so programmers can know exactly what is acceptable and what will get them in trouble.

The reason radio and TV stations cannot and should not broadcast whatever they please is because they broadcast in the interest of the public. No one can own the airwaves on which television and radio stations broadcast on because airwaves belong to no one and everyone at the same time. Everything broadcast, be it news, sports, sitcoms, soap operas, or made-for-TV movies, must be aired in the public interest.

Recently, due in no small part to the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction,” the Senate passed a bill raising the fines for indecency from approximately $25,000 to around $500,000 per incident. The House is currently working on a similar bill that will also raise indecency fines. Neither of these bills makes any attempt to define what indecency is; they just impose harsher penalties.

With fines rising sky-high, it seems unlikely that any TV or radio station which invokes the wrath of the FCC, intentionally or unintentionally, will be able to continue broadcasting after a fine of half a million dollars. Mistakes happen, but with a punishment so harsh, there doesn’t seem to be an opportunity for a second chance if a mistake is made.

In the end, fear of censorship remains at the heart of the issue. Americans pride themselves on being free to say whatever they want, whenever they want. By enforcing such harsh penalties, the people behind these programs lose their ability to say or express what they think and believe just because someone might be offended.

Before long, we could be living in a new age of McCarthyism. We shouldn’t be allowed to say anything we want on the air, but I fear we are approaching the point where we won’t be able to say anything.

I feel the pressure to keep my listeners happy every time I turn on the microphone during my college radio show. I used to babble on about any and all topics, but now,

I often avoid the normal DJ banter because I am afraid that I might let something slip that could possibly offend a listener and result in a fine against my station.

Regardless of the new FCC restrictions, I will still be on the air, doing my own radio thing. Tune in to 89.1 WXVU FM Villanova Radio or at from 10 p.m. to midnight on Thursday nights for The Golden Age of Radio with me, your host, Brian Golden. I’ll be the one behind the microphone with a gag on.