Decency flap may up focus on consolidation of media

The public ire spurred by Janet Jackson's Super Bowl show could become one more defense given in the case against creating big media companies.

The public ire spurred by Janet Jackson's Super Bowl show could become one more defense given in the case against creating big media companies.

You'll have to forgive the nation's media executives if they're a bit logy these days. It can be tough to snap out of the kind of deja vu that must be plaguing the chiefs at Viacom, and Clear Channel Communications, and executives at other massive media firms who recently have been dragged in front of Congress to explain exactly what they're doing to ensure that the news and entertainment content their companies produce is fit for public consumption. After all, this recent furor over decency in the media, which whipped up after Janet Jackson bared her right breast during the MTV-produced Super Bowl halftime show, comes as the memory of last summer's controversy over the growing reach of this handful of firms that own the lion's share of major broadcast outlets is still fresh in their memories. Back in June, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to relax laws that prohibited a single company from owning broadcast outlets and newspapers in the same market, among other regulations, under the guise that market forces made these rules anachronistic. A number of prominent public voices, however, disagreed, and groups as diverse as the National Rifle Association and liberal activist group MoveOn.org became bedfellows in sparking a grassroots movement that flooded the FCC headquarters with calls, many from citizens fearful of a media oligarchy that could severely limit their choices. The groundswell, which got the rules change mired in Congress and the courts, clearly caught the media companies by surprise. Over the years, they'd met little effectual resistance in the drive toward deregulation, if only because the issues involved seemed abstruse and, despite the best efforts of watchdogs to frame them as social issues that cut to the fabric of democracy, more concerned with industry economics than anything else. Not so with the halftime show nudity. The moment itself was dramatic and salacious enough, and MTV's and CBS' explanations hollow enough, that hundreds of thousands of viewers of the most valuable piece of advertising property in the land were incensed, their moral sense insulted - and on a grander scale than the concern that jammed the FCC's switchboard. CBS was flooded with letters and phone calls, and Congress called hearings that left broadcasters sputtering over how they could improve their content's standards. A few hyperbolic lawsuits even were filed by viewers claiming emotional damage, but those grabbed more press than serious attention from the courts. Meanwhile, Clear Channel dumped controversial radio personality "Bubba the Love Sponge" and dropped Howard Stern's show, making it clear that this was not a minor PR flap for an industry that will simply go away with time. Media regulation On the contrary, to view the Super Bowl debacle in the recent history of the media industry is to see it as one more piece of evidence that regulation of the media is a major issue for the American public. However, it is not just any exhibit in the media's never-ending public trial, but one that could reframe the regulatory environment for the industry. The exposure of people who simply want to watch a football game to a TV moment everyone agreed was gratuitous in its lasciviousness and in its presumed base intention to generate buzz for MTV and enhance sales of Jackson's new recording tapped into a sense of outrage that an issue like media ownership, where the buzzwords get sexier than localism and diversity and cross-ownership, never could. "[The media companies] had not been paying attention to the mood of the nation, and I think the ownership-rules controversy should have been an indicator of where that mood was," says Fritz Messere, author and chairman of the communication studies department at the State University of New York at Oswego. "If you look at the rules controversy back in June, the FCC got 700,000 comments, mostly negative, and that must have meant that the public was galvanized in some way to talk about change in the media. The media hadn't been paying attention to this. It had been saying, 'We need more consolidation. We need more consolidation.'" Indeed, there's nothing like the beaming of a nude breast to millions of mostly unwitting Americans to reinforce just how small technology has made the mass universe. But today's media is just as adept in traversing the value systems of its viewers as it is in spanning the geography to reach them. Now, a very strong argument against the government's allowing big media firms is the existence of cultural differences among the US' regions - or the red state-blue state dichotomy used to explain the values gap in lieu of more pronounced differences in policy stances between Al Gore and George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential election. "If you want to move against Clear Channel now, it would behoove you to say, 'Get the New York mouths off the Olathe, KS, airwaves,'" says Matthew Felling, media director for the non-partisan Center for Media and Public Affairs. "The decency issue gets a lot of people's hackles up. It's who can win the war of words first and who can frame the problem in their own terms as to who will come out on top because, right now, it's strictly politics." Effects on reputation Although the decency issue likely won't have long-term effects on individual media companies, the same can't be said for the industry, which is vulnerable on the image front. In poll after poll, the media is viewed as one of the least trusted institutions in this country. To some, this has a lot to do with its indifference to matters of reputation. "It's hard to imagine the outrage people profess to have showing up in the bottom line," says Chris Atkins, partner and director of the global corporate practice at Ketchum. "But the entertainment business in general has this bizarre insularity from the concept of reputation as something to be looked after in a global sense." In terms of the decency debate, some of this has to do with the changing and liberalizing of broad, cultural mores, but it also has to do with more acute market realities that pit broadcasters, who under US law are subject to laws that govern content against competitors in a number of sectors, most notably the cable TV industry, who aren't. Younger audiences, the story goes, are drawn to so-called edgy content, which in many cases is code for dramas and comedies that push the envelope in terms of language, violence, and sexual content. While this wisdom is painfully conventional, it's also really difficult to contradict, given the success of HBO's original programming, and is at least partially responsible for the constant attempts on the part of broadcasters to push the standards envelope. This combined with the apparent sense that American parents are not anywhere near the point to accept cable TV standards on broadcast events, even when similar ratings systems are provided, does not, however, necessarily put the television networks in a double bind because of the existence of technologies that will allow them to segment their programming to keep up with the segmentation of its audience. "This is a stopgap," says Messere. "We're moving in the direction where broadcasters could multi-channel broadcast. That would give them an opportunity to figure out where their audiences are, to program directly to those audiences, to have a family-friendly channel, and to have a more adult-programmed channel. The technology is there, but up to this point, broadcasters have been dragging their feet with digital television. Maybe now there's finally some incentive to make them move forward more quickly.'"

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