A quote from the bandaged sage of Cincinatti, Mr. Lester Nessman:
In a situation like this, I always ask myself, what would my hero Edward R. Murrow think? And I think that Ed would think that this was censorship. Then I think about what my other hero, General George Patton, would think, and I think George would think that radio and television ought to be cleaned up, and if he were alive today, he'd take two armoured cavalry divisions into Hollywood and knock all those liberal pinheads into the Pacific! So as you can see, I'm a very confused man. And when I get confused, I watch TV. Television is never confusing. It's all so simple somehow.
Maybe not so simple anymore. On Tuesday the Federal Communications Commission in the United States fined over 100 CBS affiliate stations a total of $3.6 million for airing an episode of Without A Trace which included a scene of a teenage sex orgy. You can see the scene on the Parents Television Council website (although you'll probably have to use Internet Explorer because the video won't work on my copy of Firefox). According to the FCC ruling, the scene went "well beyond what the storyline could reasonably be said to require." This was part of a push to clear up a backlog of over 300,000 obscenity complaints, virtually all of which were submitted by the Parents Television Council and it's members, often using previously created complaint letters. The FCC also upheld the fine over the Super Bowl incident in which Janet Jackson's nipple was exposed, fined The WB series The Surreal Life 2 for an episode which featured a naked "porn star" pool party although the network had pixellated nipples and other "naughty bits". The FCC also "clarified" that "the F word and the S word" are unacceptable in any context by fining a PBS documentary on Blues musicians. However it was the fine for Without A Trace that was meant to send a message on indecency. I have to say that it's a rather odd message. The stations fined were only those in the Central and Mountain time zones. In other words the show was indecent in Chicago but not in Detroit; lewd in Phoenix but not in Las Vegas. Why? Apparently it's because the show aired in the third hour of prime time and in the Eastern and Pacific Time Zones this is from 10 to 11 p.m. while in the Central and Mountatin time zones this is from 9 to 10 p.m.
In trying to prepare to write this post, I have being trying to find articles or more accurately columns from the mainstream media - the MSM - that are critical of the FCC decision. I've only really found one, surprisingly from New York Daily News columnist David Hinckley. In the article titled What's 'indecent? There's a fines line he writes "Without a Trace got the showcase fine, the one designed to instill fear, for a scene that showed clothed and semi-clothed teenagers at a sex party. Meanwhile, the FCC exonerated Oprah Winfrey for a show in which she and guests discussed, in graphic detail, what goes on at teenage sex parties. CBS said Without a Trace was only doing what Oprah was doing - making viewers aware of this teenage thing that perhaps needs to be addressed. The FCC said CBS was peddling cheap thrills. CBS said it will appeal. Truth is, it's hard for the FCC, or anyone, not to sound like a humorless schoolmarm when dissecting sex or cursing on TV. Andy Sipowicz saying "d-head" on NYPD Blue is indecent. Chris Rock saying "it sucked" on the Oscars is not. F-words in Saving Private Ryan are okay because of artistic context. A PBS station is fined $27,500 because musicians in a blues documentary curse." And that's the major criticism I've been able to find. The critic "liberal" New York Times Alessandra Stanley writes in an article called Monitoring Indecency, Pushing an Agenda "For reasons that baffle the rest of the world (in this case, they don't hate us, they pity us), the United States is far more prudish about sex than violence on television. But as long as sexually explicit material is officially taboo, then the episode did seem to meet the test: the scene of teenagers holding an orgy in a suburban house was quite blue. The camera lingered on writhing bodies and sweaty threesomes just a little longer than was strictly necessary to make the point that sexually transmitted diseases are a growing problem in high school." And that's the supposedly liberal media. Consider what the Charlotte Observer said in the article FCC fines set limits: Pandering OK after 10 which wrote "Sometimes garbage is garbage. Sometimes it's merely rubbish. Take the Dec. 31, 2004, broadcast of Without a Trace. In flashbacks, a witness describes a teen sex party. Viewers got to see teens in various sex acts, some with couples, others in a group. There was no nudity, but graphic gyrations. "The explicit and lengthy nature of the depictions of sexual activity, including apparent intercourse, goes well beyond what the story line could reasonably be said to require," the FCC reasoned. "Moreover, the scene is all the more shocking because it depicts minors engaged in sexual activities." And, wham, down come the fines - $32,000 for CBS affiliates that aired the episode. But only if they were in the Central or Mountain Time Zones." In the article, the Observer's Mark Washburn adds "Ruling in a range of cases, including Nicole Richie's potty-mouth appearance on the 2003 "Billboard Music Awards," the agency said the so-called S- and F-words were almost never OK. Exception: Works of considerable literary, historical or artistic nature. Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List are the standard. In rejecting F- and S-, the FCC gave life to a swarm of other vulgarities that do not refer to sexual or excretory organs or activity. Aiming their little stingers at a TV near you are the words "hell," "damn," "bitch," "slutty," a three-letter word for backside and other colloquialisms Observer editors won't allow on your breakfast table."
Alessandra Stanley is right about one thing, much of the rest of the world is baffled by this decision and the general prudery of the American media. In Canada there wouldn't have been a comment on the matter. Consider the scene. There is no nudity. There's fondling, and groping but a lot of the scene is shot in low light. A great deal is implied but very little is shown. In tone the scene is crude, sleazy even. Given what they're trying to depict it has to be. Try to picture a scene that doesn't show what's going on but just has the girl who is being interrogated describing the events. Oh yes, and try to do that within the language restrictions that the FCC has imposed on TV. It doesn't have the impact that seeing it does. What the scene doesn't do, at least in my viewing of it, is excite or titillate. It does disgust; it's meant to. The scene is meant to be a warning about the need to supervise teenagers - these kids have these orgies because they don't have adult supervision - and the potential dangers of teenaged sexuality. With the fines for Without A Trace the FCC has "defined" a level of content as being unacceptable that is not entirely obvious. We know what obscenity means - in terms of nudity and scatological language - and the broadcast networks have for the most part been careful about not presenting obscene material. But is the boundary around indecency as clearly defined. I would argue that in a world where afternoon soap operas have sex scenes and no one objects but where these fines are imposed because they aired before 10 p.m. then it is not clearly defined.
More of a threat I suppose is that the FCC is restricting the right to free speech in terms of what can and can't be broadcast by creating a climate of fear - don't take any risks or push the envelope no matter how important the issue is because we'll slap huge fines on you. And this isn't voluntary censorship of the type that the motion picture industry imposed on itself with its Production Code, it is censorship by an outside government agency. The Motion Picture Industry took 30 years - between the strict enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 and the 1960s when the boundaries on language and nudity were finally and inexorably broken - to return to a level of sophistication that they had in the pre-code films. How long will American television have to wait to catch up with most of the rest of the world or even return to the level of sophistication in terms of language and frankness about issues that it had in the 1990s? I don't think I'll hold my breath.