Analysis: Censorship at the Oscars?

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Feb. 13, 2004 at 5:29 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- Reaction to Janet Jackson's Super Bowl flash has spread to the Oscars' telecast, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is none too happy about ABC's decision to televise this year's awards ceremony on a 5-second delay in order to guard against unwanted displays of flesh and who knows what else.

On the same day that academy President Frank Pierson was calling the tape-delay a form of censorship, officials from the NFL and Viacom -- the parent company of Super Bowl telecaster CBS and halftime show producer MTV -- were doing penance on Capitol Hill for the Super Sunday transgression, when Justin Timberlake pulled the covering off of Jackson's right breast on live TV.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue took responsibility -- not just for Jackson's stunt, but for the entire halftime show -- and promised the House Telecommunications Subcommittee that the league will never again inflict culturally coarse entertainment at the biggest football game of the year.

"Judgments were made that were bad and it won't happen again," said Tagliabue.

Viacom President and Chief Operating Officer Mel Karmazin told committee members that his company's internal investigation of the Jackson incident concluded that the breast-baring stunt was all Jackson's idea and was a huge surprise to everyone at CBS and MTV.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell told the Senate Commerce Committee that the issue is much larger than Jackson's moment of infamy or even the crotch-grabbing content of the halftime show overall.

"The now-infamous display during the Super Bowl halftime show, which represented a new low in prime time television, is just the latest example in a growing list of deplorable incidents over the nation's airwaves," Powell said.

Congress is likely to stiffen penalties for violating broadcast decency standards. It remains to be seen whether Congress will be able to devise legislation that further clarifies what is expected of broadcasters without running afoul of the first amendment.

As lawmakers held broadcasters' feet to the fire over indecency, Comcast announced its intention to take over the Walt Disney Co., while several consumer groups were asking a federal court in Philadelphia to restore old rules limiting media company ownership of TV stations.

Gene Kimmelman, senior public policy director for Consumers Union, said the new, looser limits on ownership will kill independent local media outlets and that the Comcast-Disney deal would be bad for democracy.

"If this deal goes through," said Kimmelman, "it tightens the ownership grip over the most important sources of news, information and entertainment in our country."

Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, told United Press International that Washington's reaction to the Super Bowl controversy offers a guidepost to where the priorities of politicians and regulators lie.

"There's a lot of people saying they're shocked, shocked, that there's sex and violence on television," said Kaplan. "And the same regulators who couldn't care less about the dangers of concentration of power in the media have suddenly decided that our nation's coarsened culture requires their immediate attention."

Kaplan said the response of Powell and other Washington politicians to the Super Bowl incident was probably shaped, to some extent, by election year politics. But he also said it's easy to see why so many Americans were outraged by Jackson's strip show.

"I think the country got mugged and so we reacted the way any mugging victim might, with surprise and outrage," he said. "On the other hand, the movement of that into the political arena has been an invitation to grandstanding and demagoguery."

Under the circumstances, it's little wonder that the academy is concerned about the potential consequences of a tape-delay telecast of the 76th Annual Academy Awards on Feb. 29 in Los Angeles. The Oscars telecast has always been live, and the new precedent could be the first step on a slippery slope toward increased censorship.

In a letter to academy members, Pierson said that even a brief tape delay "introduces a form of censorship into a broadcast -- not direct governmental control, but it means that a network representative is in effect guessing at what a government might tolerate, which can be even worse." Pierson suggested that accepting the delay could lead to broader restrictions down the road, and wondered whether the day might come when "not only words but ideas" will be blipped out of the telecast.

Telecast producer Joe Roth has said the delay will only be used to delete profanity and will not be used to screen out political expression. That's easy to say, but the mere act of imposing the delay will add texture to the inevitable post-telecast debate about content -- which will now expand to include not just what was said or seen on the air, but whether producers have made appropriate choices regarding dicey moments.

The academy's board of governors reportedly declined to endorse ABC's decision to use the tape delay, but they had little choice but to go along with it. After all, if the telecast provides a Janet Jackson-style flashpoint, it's the network -- not the academy -- that has to deal with irate viewers, incensed affiliates and outraged politicians with one eye on the TV screen and the other on the election year calendar.

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