What the Frak?
In an age when teenagers and young adults do not seem to be able to express a thought without the abundant use of vulgarities and obscenities, and when the television, movie and music industries seem to be trying to outdo themselves in the ‘shock-value’ of their offerings, it’s good to know that a few people are still dedicated to returning to some level of decency.
Reality time for broadcast-indecency regulations
May 31, 2008 Providence Journal
JEFFREY M. McCALL
THE MEDIA-WATCHDOG GROUP Parents Television Council (PTC) publicly commended NBC television last month when the network announced plans to make the 8-9 p.m. hour a time for family-friendly viewing. Just days later, NBC aired an episode of 30 Rock in that time slot that didn’t strike the PTC as fitting the family-friendly category.
The 30 Rock episode centered on a fake reality show called MILF Island.
The acronym stands for “Mothers I’d Like to ....” NBC’s idea of family viewing includes a sexy mother taking off her bikini top (with some digital blurring) in front of eighth-grade boys, and the cast of 30 Rock making obscene hand gestures that blurring fails to really hide. NBC’s family-oriented dialogue includes such family-funny lines as “erection cove,” “eating bugs to earn tampons” and “what the frak?,” an obvious attempt to substitute a word not currently on the Federal Communications Commission’s sanction list for one that is.
If NBC thinks that this is the kind of show that families gather to watch, the cultural divide between the “entertainment” industry and the majority of Americans is massive. Clearly, network television is trying to make a statement to the FCC and the federal courts about what content should be allowed on broadcast airwaves, which are publicly owned.
Regarding the 30 Rock flap, NBC executive Alan Wurtzel told an industry publication, “We’ve always felt that the people who get the jokes aren’t going to be offended.” Translation: Only ignorant people could possibly be offended by our clever humor.
The networks and their activist professional organizations are spending millions of dollars fighting federal laws that prohibit indecent and profane communication on broadcast airwaves. CBS continues to fight FCC fines for the 2004 Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. A federal appellate ruling is expected soon. ABC is appealing fines for a 2003 episode of NYPD Blue that showed female nudity. Fox television refuses to pay fines for a 2003 episode of Married by America, prompting the Justice Department to sue to collect the money. NBC and Fox are appealing decisions related to indecent utterances by celebrities on live awards broadcasts. The matter of so-called “fleeting expletives” will be heard by the Supreme Court next fall. Many other cases are bottled up at the FCC, pending guidance from these eventual court decisions.
Shrill spokesmen for media organizations are in full voice pushing a network vision of what constitutes suitable content. Fox’s appeal told the FCC that it shouldn’t make “subjective assessments about the morality of a program.” Of course, Fox thinks that its own assessment of program content is fully objective.
Jonathan Rintels, of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, challenged the FCC in a published interview to clear up the confusion on indecency enforcement: “The line has to be clearly drawn and crystal clear so that creative people can speak and write and create up to that line.”
He went on to say that he didn’t think that the FCC could actually draw such a line.
The New York Times editorialized that FCC indecency enforcement has done “serious damage to free speech,” but failed to indicate how. The Times said the words targeted for FCC enforcement are commonly heard and that Bono’s f-bomb on live television was just a lighthearted slip.
CBS commentator Andy Rooney opined, “I think if the Federal Communications Commission left broadcasters alone, there would be very little profanity on the air.” Sure, and all motorists would drive the speed limit if police would just remove speed traps.
While network executives fiddle away fighting legal battles, they are apparently oblivious to the sentiments of the audience. Network primetime viewership dropped again this year. Surveys show a disgruntled public. Nearly two-thirds of viewers say that programming is getting worse, compared to only 22 percent who think it is improving. Four out of five Americans think that there is too much sex, violence and rough language on television.
The upcoming Supreme Court decision about fleeting expletives could settle this tug of war for years to come. The court could rule broadly, either supporting the FCC’s indecency enforcement or allowing broadcasters to receive First Amendment protection for such content. If the court rules narrowly, however, focusing just on the occasional unscripted bad word, this argument will carry on.
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, of the Media Access Project, hopes that the court will side with broadcasters, of course, and has criticized the FCC’s current enforcement as “incoherent and overbroad.” He says that the FCC “has chilled the creative process for the writers, directors and producers we represent.” Not enough yet, apparently, to chill NBC from running a 30 Rock MILF program as suitable for its family hour.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Ind., and author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences
Labels: Society in General