The FCC goes bust

Chairman Michael Powell's threats over the Super Bowl have the hollow ring of a bureaucrat who already surrendered his moral authority.

By John Ridley
February 5, 2004 6:03AM (UTC)
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I know. Unless you're one of the lucky few who TiVo'd the Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake "dance of the single veil" and replay it on a continual loop, you're pretty sick of hearing about the Super Bowl halftime peep show. I'm right there with you, and was -- with my wife's encouragement -- ready to forget the whole thing.

That is, until Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell -- son of Secretary of State Colin "I swear they've got weapons of mass destruction" Powell -- had to butt into the situation.


Apparently, like a lot of people, the chairman was home watching the Super Bowl with his family, enjoying the sight of men engaged in violent ritual cheered on by scantily clad women on the sidelines and only occasionally interrupted by more scantily clad women shilling beer and old men telling me how I can have better sex. Then came halftime, then came Janet and Justin, then came the outrage from the good chairman. But let's replay a couple of things here. The Super Bowl was broadcast on CBS and the halftime show was produced by MTV, both of which happen to be two of the many wholly owned subsidiaries of Viacom. Now, Viacom's one of the handful of big fat media companies, along with joints like Time Warner, Disney and News Corp., that together own most of the television networks, cable news outlets, newspapers, magazines and even outdoor advertising venues that give us our information and entertainment, and otherwise propagandize us on a daily basis.

Viacom is also one of the big fat media companies that chairman Powell and his cronies at the FCC worked so very, very hard to make bigger and fatter just last summer through the relaxation of media ownership rules. This is a frightening trend that's been going on since the mid-'70s. Back in 1975, about 1,500 individual entities owned various daily newspapers and full-power TV stations. By the turn of the millennium, there were only 625 owners. At the same time, there are 1,700 fewer owners of commercial radio stations, and America's seven largest cable providers control more than 75 percent of the market.

But for Mike Powell that was still too much media in too many hands, and he led the fight to allow companies like Viacom to pretty much buy up whatever outlets they pleased, print or broadcast, uncontested. That was a concept so obviously repugnant that groups as diverse as the National Rifle Association and the National Organization for Women were lobbying against it. But Powell and his boys were more interested in what big media wanted than, say, the American public, and voted to ease the rules.


This was an event Viacom praised at the time by saying it would "help ensure that free, over-the-air broadcasting continues to be available." Apparently along with free, over-the-air broadcasting of a pop star's naked breast, which, by the way, was not fully naked. And now, after trying to hand the media companies nearly unlimited power, chairman Powell is shocked, shocked to find out that they're doing whatever they want to get ratings and attention? Maybe after he gets rid of exhibitionism in sports Powell can start working on hypocrisy in politics.

Powell does have a fix for the situation. He's threatening to fine Viacom's affiliates -- more than 200 stations -- up to $27,500 apiece. That's more than $5.5 million in fines. Unfortunately, in the last quarter it reported earnings, Viacom pulled in revenue of about $6.6 billion. Billion, with a "B." And an "illion." When I said these companies were big and fat, I meant big and fat. So, I'm guessing right about now that Viacom chief Summner Redstone's looking through the cushions of his couch for enough change to pay Mike Powell off.

Look, I'm not trying to back the liberal media, which we all know is out to destroy every decent value that we in the Western world hold near and dear. And, like you, I think near-naked breasts should be relegated to strip clubs and the Fox prime-time lineup. But the only obscene spectacle I'm seeing is chairman Powell's hollow outrage at a situation of which he himself was an architect. When you work so hard to build the perfect media beast, don't be surprised when it decides to throw off its shackles. Or its bra.

John Ridley

John Ridley is a screenwriter, novelist and producer. Most recently, he is the creator and producer of UPN's "Platinum."

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