PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor
Everybody wants to blame Janet Jackson’s tit. Since that “wardrobe malfunction” made Super Bowl 2004 the tagline for a thousand moralistic and political talking points, censorship has become a simmering social stew about to boil over. Just this past April (2005) outgoing National Association of Broadcasters President Edward Fitts warned the membership that an epic legal battle for free speech is brewing.
TV networks faced a record $7.9 million in regulatory fines this year, and the 1st Amendment hits just keep on coming. This past Veteran’s Day, 66 ABC affiliates refused to air Saving Private Ryan for fear of public outcries over violence and language. PBS also saw many of its stations pull an episode of Postcards with Buster because it included a child with two “mommies”. Perhaps no single incident incited more angry pontification than the 15 November 2004 edition of Monday Night Football. The opening featured a skit with Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens and Desperate Housewives actress Nicolette Sheridan. A silly seduction scene, ending with Ms. Sheridan dropping her barely-covering-her-butt towel, it led to yet another round of ranting and raving.
ABC apologized immediately. The NFL said it would “investigate.” Indianapolis Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy called it racist. The most pressing concern, no surprise, was the possibility of a fine (CBS had been hit with a $550,000 for the Super Bowl incident - which it refuses to pay). In looking for a scapegoat, many eyes fell on the nepotistic nuisance known as Michael Powell (Colin’s son). A champion of deregulation while advocating more control over content, the now former FCC Chairman (he stepped down in January of this past year) turned into a typical villain at the hands of the media. With his exit, critics hoped the cause for suppression would ease.
Instead, it appears to be getting worse. Just this month, Congress passed legislation that would increase the fine for broadcast “indecency.” They also instituted a “three strikes and you’re out” policy that would lift the license of any company with multiple violations. And next on the agenda is a debate over whether the FCC should have jurisdiction over the content of pay cable channels like HBO.
The FCC’s Puritanism is not just one man’s or one administration’s doing, however. The flawed agency is merely a tool of several high profile political action groups that know how to play the system for their own ends. Organizations like the American Family Association and the Parents Television Council have made use of the press and now, the Internet, to incite and organize protests. Such activism is in part inspired by grassroots campaigns of past prudes, like Terry Rakolta, a Michigan homemaker made infamous for her battles with Fox over Married with Children. Back in 1989, Rakolta went rabid over the lowbrow sitcom, and managed to get a few sponsors to pull their ads… at least until revenue and reality set in: Children was a hit.
In 2005, the FCC has become a kind of clearing house for similar campaigns. According to Mediaweek, the PTC was responsible for 99.8% of the indecency complaints filed with the FCC for all of 2003. The group’s website features a fill-in-the-blank-and-click form that allows you to register your outrage, with condemnations and calls for action prepared in advance for your convenience. Fox’s Married by America drew 159 complaints, all but three generated by such a point and click process. The result? The network got hit with a $1.2 million fine.
The PTC hailed it as a victory for “American families,” then posted a pop chart-like table showing different programs being targeted, alongside the number of PTC grievances sent to the FCC. This hit list includes hoary favorites like Fear Factor and That ‘70s Show, as well as Desperate Housewives. Indeed, the ABC hit is under fire not just for its endearingly sleazy content, but for another, timeslot-oriented scandal. Many religious and conservative groups are livid that the network aired an episode on Easter Sunday 2005, instead of the “traditional” showing of The Ten Commandments.
While activists call these responses necessary weapons in the battle for airwave decency, they also provide the incentive for outright censorship. Small affiliates, unable to match the multinational conglomerates in legal manpower or deep pockets, monitor the content they accept or reject, realizing it will be cheaper than getting hit with a monumental fine, inspired by a well-organized protest. The nipple ripple effect can also be seen on the media main stage. Major programming like the Grammys and the Oscars employ seven to 10-second delays, hoping to prevent another malfunction, wardrobe or verbal.
It’s hard to say if the content police are having an “immediate” influence on what we see and hear on the nation’s airwaves. But they are having a “chilling effect”: if you fail to broadcast something because your fear punishment, you have been “chilled.” The last time anyone checked, such an idea clashes with established Supreme Court precedent.
The FCC contends it is only following the will of the people. The frightening thing is that there is no recourse for those who feel the FCC is being unfairly manipulated. If you find something offensive, you’ve got web forms to fire off. But if you want to stand up for a program or an editorial choice, you can’t make this known in numbers. Certainly, groups exist to fight censorship, but the damage has to be done before their efforts garner notice.
What this boils down to is a question of who’s zooming whom. If the FCC represents the citizenry of the United States, should it be making decisions based on 156 form letters from the PTC? Is it responding to the average “America” or the one envisioned by PTC Founder Brent Bozell? Over the past year, the FCC has proven to be unreliable and erratic. It appears easily swayed by quantitative, not qualitative arguments, and follows political currents more than Constitutional principle. While we might expect more of the same in the near future, let’s at least stop blaming Janet’s boob. The FCC’s new effectiveness is a function of chest pounding, not exposing.