As indecency hearings begin this week in Congress, the broadcaster appears poised to become a whipping boy for politicians, religious groups and other social-issue lobbyists.
The string of CBS's bad hits began last year when it was widely reported that the network offered Pfc. Jessica Lynch moneymaking deals with Viacom companies in exchange for an exclusive interview and ended with the Super Bowl halftime incident in which Janet Jackson bared her breast. The Federal Communications Commission claimed that it received more than 200,000 viewer complaints last week.
The incident couldn't have come at a worse time for CBS. Amidst bipartisan Capitol Hill anger about the FCC's failure to more aggressively chastise broadcasters over several earlier incidents, Senate and House committees had planned hearings on obscenity even before the incident. Now the incident and expected testimony from CBS Chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves are certain to generate additional attention and pressure on the FCC to act and on CBS and other networks to tone down programming.
The irony is that despite these public-relations issues, in the business world the CBS brand remains untarnished. It is the only network that appears set to pull out a big ratings win for the February sweeps period. While competitors ABC, NBC and Fox all saw dramatic ratings drops in prime-time programming, CBS's audiences have grown substantially.
"We are more concerned about ratings," said Andy Donchin, senior VP-director of national broadcast for Aegis Group's Carat North America. "And CBS is doing extremely well."
Contributing: Ira Teinowitz