The costs of keeping broadcasting decent

July 24, 2006

Over the past generation, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the federal government has staged a broad retreat from broadcast regulation. Rules requiring balance in presentations of public controversy, forcing networks to buy programs from independent studios, limiting the number of stations a single company can own — all and much more have been loosened or scrapped.

But in one area regulators not only haven’t retreated, they have launched a fierce counteroffensive. That’s indecency.

For decades, the Federal Communications Commission’s response to bad language was largely confined to slapping around radio shock jocks for outrageous sexual banter, a Washington Post compilation of enforcement actions found. George Carlin’s 1973 “seven dirty words” broadcast made him famous, but it didn’t cost him a dime. If not for Howard Stern, who apparently has to ask all his interviewees about their first sexual experiences, there were perhaps a dozen fines exceeding four figures before the new millennium.

After the Bush administration took office in 2001 newly appointed FCC chairman Michael K. Powell promised a crackdown, and fines began to climb. Then came the 2004 Super Bowl, when Janet Jackson’s breast was briefly exposed during the half-time show, a lapse that has now produced a $550,000 fine against CBS.

In the aftermath, enforcement stiffened. The FCC this year fined California community college-owned KCSM $15,000 for showing a documentary on the blues made by Martin Scorsese that contained four-letter words. In March it demanded $3.6 million from local CBS affiliates for an episode of “Without a Trace” with a brief teen orgy scene.

Now, under legislation President Bush signed in June, fines have been raised tenfold — to $325,000 per offense, up to $3 million a day — on broadcasters who violate decency standards that regulators, as a matter of constitutional principle, won’t explain beforehand. (Doing so, they reason, would constitute “prior restraint,” or censorship, which is illegal.)

The FCC claims to be bowing to public outrage, but the anger seems more apparent than real. A Wall Street Journal examination of the 6,500 e-mails protesting the “Without a Trace” episode found all but three were computer-generated form letters, seemingly orchestrated by a group called the Parents Television Council. Network supporters insist most complainants never actually see the programs they denounce.

One irony of this crackdown is that the very public that the restrictions are meant to protect — the young and the impressionable — is broadcasting’s scarcest demographic. Those kids are watching cable and DVDs or are trolling the Internet, blogging, uploading video onto networking sites, listening and talking. They aren’t waiting to hear some middle-aged lech like Howard Stern dare his young guest to take off her top.

A second irony is that once you get onto cable or satellite radio — let alone the Internet — anything goes. None of the current prudery affects those media, which are largely outside the reach of regulators. CBS can be fined for images that are routine on HBO, which may also be why subscription cable has pioneered a renaissance of TV drama — raw and unsettling — that is likely to be remembered as U.S. television’s second Golden Age.

It’s a weird situation. On the one hand, it’s hard to see why certain content isn’t regulated, whether it runs on cable or broadcast — say, children’s shows that contain furtive commercial messages, pimp the latest video games or encourage intolerance. On the other hand, is broadcasting really improved if programmers are forbidden to create strongly realistic depictions for airing when children are supposed to be in bed?

Worse, these restrictions now are being applied to news and current affairs programming too. Live reporting is already in trouble, since broadcasters are being held responsible for rude language from uncoached crowds, and the FCC has requested tapes of football games and NASCAR races.

Now documentarists are worried too. PBS has told producers they must not only bleep the entirety of offensive words — no more “motherBLEEPer” — but they must pixelate, or blur, the mouths of the speakers too, presumably so that lip-readers won’t faint away in horror. As WGBH “Frontline” producer Louis Wiley Jr. observed, the result will be that producers will edit out entire scenes, rather than air ludicrously expurgated versions. Isn’t there some danger of powerful realities being concealed?

We’re moving toward a bizarrely fractured communications system, in which content that is virtually pornographic is readily available on cable channels seen by much the same people who get cleansed, over-the-air broadcast. It’s unclear who’s being protected, but what is clear is that an already timid medium is being bullied into doing what it does best — cower and comply.

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