Thursday, November 29, 2007

Who Does The PTC Hate THIS Week – November 28, 2007

The thing about writing these pieces on their own rather than as a part of my Short Takes posts is that I really can't express the frustration I feel towards the Parents Television Council in the title. Somehow capitalizing "this" just doesn't express the same sense of frustration that putting the word in italics does. And despite the fact that they provide me with a lot to post about, the PTC does frustrate me. The PTC and organizations like it that lobby for a sort of homogenization of TV, and particularly broadcast TV, to a specific common denominator – not the lowest just the least offensive to them – in the name of "protecting the children" is a major part of the reason why American television (which the world is exposed to) hasn't progressed nearly as much as one would hope. Shows that would be perfectly acceptable in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada would be attacked by the PTC and in some cases banned by the FCC because they don't come up to some mythical "standard of decency." American TV should be better than it is. It should be free to address more adult subject matter but the FCC, driven in part by the PTC and similar groups frustrates this.

The FCC: Part of the rant above was triggered by the PTC's reaction to an FCC decision that actually went against them. You may remember the controversy that the PTC fired up over the "teen orgy episode" of Without A Trace, and the way that airing that episode as a repeat "violated" a consent decree that CBS and the FCC had entered into as part of an effort to clear away thousands of obscenity complaints brought before the FCC – mostly by the PTC. The PTC called on the FCC to either review all the licenses for CBS owned and operated stations or reinstate the thousands of complaints against the network. At that point the PTC was trumpeting the Commission's power to punish transgressors. They were also dismissing CBS's explanation – that the airing of the episode was inadvertent and that they thought the provisions of the consent decree requiring the network to have instruments and policies in place to prevent further transmissions of "obscene" material applied only to live broadcasts, since that was what the vast majority of the cases (virtually all of those cleared by the first consent decree) dealt with – as being nonsensical at best and the act of an evil corrupting corporation in any case. At that time the FCC had the potential of being heroic defenders of America's children, even though the episode was originally deemed "obscene" because it was shown in the third hour of prime time and in the Central and Mountain Time Zones (only) the third hour starts at 9 p.m. rather than 10 p.m. when the content in the episode would not be deemed "obscene" (incidentally I keep putting the word obscene in quotes because, having seen the episode at least twice I cannot for the life of me discern why the FCC gave it that label).

Then last week the FCC and CBS reached a second consent decree in the case. That Consent Decree required CBS to pay a fine of $300,000 and take measures to comply with the requirements of the earlier Consent Decree. This Consent Decree related specifically to the license challenge that the PTC made to the CBS owned KUTV in Salt Lake City, a station that the network had already entered into an agreement to sell. According to Broadcast & Cable the new decree "applies to KUTV and to a license challenge filed by the Parents Television Council, as well as to any other CBS stations that similarly did not take remedial actions. That decree paves the way for CBS to sell KUTV and a number of other stations to Cerberus Capital." The new fine is in addition to the original $3.6 million fine imposed on CBS when the episode was repeated – a fine that is under appeal to the FCC by CBS, and which will probably (hopefully, at least as far as I'm concerned) go before the courts if the FCC rejects the appeal. It should be pointed out that the $300,000 fine is just $22,000 less than the maximum fine that the FCC can impose on a single station if a program is found to contain indecent material – by whatever standard the FCC is using for indecent at the moment.

Needless to say the PTC is incensed – at the FCC. PTC chairman Tim Winter released a statement that said in part, "The FCC has failed its obligation by letting CBS off the hook – not once, but now a second time – for airing the same indecent content. The FCC has chosen CBS' corporate interest over the public interest, but the public, not CBS, is the true and rightful owner of the public airwaves. And shamefully, the FCC announced its decision the day after Thanksgiving, trying to bury any public scrutiny. What kind of signal does this send to broadcast licensees – and more importantly, what kind of signal does this send to the public? The Commission has failed miserably to serve the public interest." The statement also took the time to remind readers of the actions that the PTC demanded that the FCC take against CBS: "What the FCC should have done is hold a license renewal hearing in order to determine whether CBS has served the public interest in Salt Lake City as its KUTV broadcast license requires. Such a license hearing would be a powerful and positive reminder to every broadcaster in the nation that they are granted temporary and conditional permission to use valuable property. Another way the FCC could have responded is in a manner consistent with what most other breach-of-contract situations might call for, to wit, that the benefits secured by the breaching party be returned to the harmed party. In this case, the FCC would reopen each and every broadcast decency complaint which was summarily dismissed by the November 2004 Consent Decree, and each complaint would be adjudicated on its merits. The dismissal of the complaints was the benefit secured by CBS in signing the Consent Decree and paying a fine. Because CBS violated that agreement, those benefits should be forfeited. In addition, each and every radio and television broadcast license held by CBS should have been reconsidered." Winter's statement concludes with the following nugget, "CBS gets off with a paltry fine and a slap on the wrist – there is no real financial penalty to ensure that CBS will follow the decency law in the future. The $300,000 settlement sounds like a lot of money to consumers, but it's a tiny fraction of the sale price of KUTV and the value of the broadcast license it uses to operate. The FCC has failed its legal obligation to protect families from indecent content and to enforce the terms of contracts it enters into. The public deserves better."

The PTC's attitude isn't overly surprising of course. This is an organization that consistently describes any organization that doesn't agree with its demands – because that's what they are – as being "against families." When the FCC is in agreement with them of course it is an organization that is the great barrier against the corrupting networks and America's children. The PTC summarily dismisses the right of the broadcasters to appeal FCC decisions either to the Commission itself or to the courts, as in the "inadvertent obscenity case" heard by a panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. And when, as in the Second Circuit Court's decision on the "inadvertent obscenity case," the finding of an appeal goes against the FCC and the PTC, then the decision is condemned as wrongheaded and against America's families. Frequently the condemnation is done with words that the PTC would condemn if they were broadcast or even bleeped on a TV show. So naturally the Commission has "failed its legal obligation to protect families" when it doesn't do exactly what the PTC wants.

The Broadcast Worst of the Week and TV Trends pieces this week both illustrate the PTC's ongoing vendetta against FOX's Family Guy and the show's creator Seth McFarlane, who is also attacked in the Misrated column for the show American Dad. The Worst of the Week piece focuses specifically on the November 18th episode which satirizes the whole illegal immigrant debate. Or as the PTC puts it, "On its November 18th episode, Fox's crude animated series Family Guy (9:00 p.m. ET) belched out another patently offensive episode, qualifying the program yet again as the Worst of the Week. The episode was a disturbing in-your-face satire on the immigration debate facing the U.S.; but any legitimate points were totally obscured by a thick veil of sexual innuendo, graphic imagery, and foul language." Notice how they used the words "belched out" rather than the far more neutral "aired" or "broadcast." The choice of words is definitely showing the tone of disgust that the PTC has for the series. In the episode Peter becomes highly patriotic and anti-immigrant to the point of wearing an American Flag suit and instigating a crackdown on illegal immigrants in his work place. It is then that he discovers that himself is an illegal immigrant because his mother went to Mexico for an abortion which the PTC describes in probably more detail than was shown on the show: "In a flashback we see the writer's depiction of a Mexican abortion: Peter's mother goes into a Mexican establishment where she is strung up by a rope, and children beat her stomach with piñata sticks. Peter falls out of his mother's uterus alive and dangles by the umbilical cord. The sight of her newborn child is enough to make his mother keep him, and baby Peter is taken back to the U.S. where he is raised." Upon losing his job for being an illegal immigrant Peter looks for jobs he deems suitable for an illegal immigrant: "He tries working as a housekeeper at a motel (where he tries to engage in a threesome with a couple staying at the motel) and as a nanny for two young children. The nanny position is shown as a spoof on Mary Poppins, as Peter falls through the ceiling of the children's quarters and crushes both of the children into a bloody mess. After vomiting on their remains he pushes the bodies under the bed with his umbrella, vomits again and sneaks out of the window." Of course the PTC doesn't make it clear whether or not these are Peter's imaginings of what the jobs would be like, but of course that makes no difference to the PTC. No, for the PTC, "Family Guy never ceases to shock and horrify with its gratuitous transgression of moral and ethical boundaries. The program hides its offensive filth under the cover of satire, but the smut that saturates the program from start to finish makes any honest critique of society impossible to accept." Maybe if it wasn't animated...

That is the point (if you can call it that) of the PTC's TV Trends column this week, Fox's Family Guy: For Children? Ask anyone from FOX or Seth McFarlane's production company and they'll tell you emphatically that the answer is no, but of course why would the PTC take anyone's word for it when they're already certain of the answer. The whole premise of the article is summed up in this statement: "While in other nations animation has been used in a variety of genres and aimed at a variety of ages for many years (such as Japan's explicitly sexual and graphically violent anime), in America animation has traditionally been considered safe and friendly for children. Even when American animation carried adult humor or subtext – such as many of the classic Warner Brothers Looney Tunes, the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons of the 1960s, or more recent efforts like Animaniacs – it typically eschewed open violence or references to sex. Thus parents may be forgiven for assuming that animated programming, particularly when it airs early on Sunday nights, is safe for their children to watch." And that's the PTC's first mistake. They ignore the American tradition of adult themed animation – Fritz the Cat, Heavy Metal, and Ralph Bakshi`s Wizards to name just three of many examples. As far as airing "early on Sunday nights" maybe the PTC should be reminded that the show airs at exactly the same time as ABC's Desperate Housewives and CBS's Cold Case, and The CW's rerun of America's Next Top Model, none of which are shows that the PTC would describe as airing at an early hour when condemning them – and they have condemned them but then the PTC has condemned just about every scripted show on television.

No PTC article on Family Guy would be complete without the obligatory recitation of the "evils" of an episode, in this case the November 4th episode which was the show's 100th. I won't go through it – it's not really a long list but there is an extended quote – but I would like to point out the shots that the PTC takes at the show's creator Seth McFarlane, part of which is tied into that long quote I mentioned. Before listing the evils of the episode the PTC's writer has this to say: "Family Guy (and its allied animated atrocity American Dad, both from the putrid pen of "creator" Seth MacFarlane) definitely does not conform to this tradition. MacFarlane and his fellows delight in being as openly crude, sexual, scatological and violent as possible..." There's a certain amount of venom there ("putrid pen", the quotation marks around creator, just as two examples). But then comes a shot that is delivered following the long quotation that I mentioned. The quotation is a discussion between Stewie (the homicidal baby) and Brian (the alcoholic dog) about how Stewie intends to torture his mother Lois. Brian is full of suggestions and is getting off on it. The quotation from the episode ends with Stewie saying, "You're getting some kind of sick sexual thrill off this, aren't you?" After this the writer of the piece adds, "Obviously, Seth MacFarlane knows all about sick thrills."

But of course the article isn't "just" another screed against Seth McFarlane, FOX and The Family Guy, it's a defence of the children, for as Mrs. Lovejoy (from that other Sunday night animated series The Simpsons) would say, "Won't somebody think of the children!?" They start by pointing out that Fox "has never been shy about promoting Family Guy as appropriate for youth," with the network trumpeting that the show is #1 in Teens. Just in case we aren't aware of the fact the PTC includes an image – presumably of an ad from an industry publication or a FOX in-house magazine – that states that Family Guy is #1 in Teens. The PTC ignores the other fact in the ad, that Family Guy is also "#1 in Guys." The reason I state that this image obviously comes from a trade publication is that it includes a rating number for each category, which would hardly be relevant for a general audience (8.0 RTO for Guys, 5.9 RTO for Teens, just in case you were interested). But then they get down to the "proof" that the evil FOX and the Evil McFarlane are trying to lure unsuspecting adults and innocent children into their haven of perversity.

The "proof" is so flimsy as to be close to nonexistent; if it were a piece of turkey it would have been cut so thin that you could read a newspaper through it. First they state that "On Sunday, November 18th, during Fox's airing of the Cowboys/Redskins football game, sports announcers promoted that night's Family Guy episode, using the same jocular tone employed to promote detergent or beer. No reference was made to the content of the episode in question." Nice rhetoric, but I have never in my life seen sports announcers promote detergent or beer during the course of a game – in a jocular tone or for that matter any tone. As far as promos for shows, every announcer on every network does do that, and usually in an upbeat tone and virtually never mentioning the content of the show. They are reading the script provided. The second proof is even more laughable: "Furthermore, during commercials for Family Guy aired during that game (and presumably in other markets as well), brief film clips from the episode showed the character of Peter wearing a business suit modeled on the American flag. Using this patriotic image seems almost deliberately deceptive, intentionally designed to lure innocent viewers into thinking that there could be nothing objectionable about such a cartoon – certainly, nothing that would make it unsafe for their children to watch. Needless to say, any such viewers would have been appalled by the actual content of that night's episode." If the PTC weren't actually serious that statement would be incredibly laughable. As it stands it is almost contemptuous of the intelligence of the American public. Are they really suggesting that the American people are so soft brained that they will suddenly flock to a show that has been on the air for six seasons and been reviewed countless times, because of a commercial in which one of the characters is wearing "a business suit modeled on the American flag?" Come to think of it the PTC must think that Americans are that soft-brained, because they're whole raison d'etre has seemingly changed from their stated goal "to ensure that children are not constantly assaulted by sex, violence and profanity on television and in other media" and has become to treat all Americans like children and impose their standards of acceptable programming regardless of the time (why else review "third hour" shows) or mode of transmission (broadcast and cable channels).

The article's whole absurd logic builds up to this final conclusion: "Those who defend the programs produced by MacFarlane and his ilk claim that parents are solely responsible for protecting children from anything offensive or inappropriate. True, parents ought to be concerned about what their children watch on TV – and most are. But when the broadcast networks go out of their way to deliberately mislead parents into thinking that adult-themed programming is harmless, obviously the networks themselves bear a large measure of responsibility." They also add yet another parting shot at Seth McFarlane: "That Seth MacFarlane has befouled this nation's tradition of family-friendly animated humor – on programs named "Family Guy" and "American Dad", of all things – is bad enough; but that the Fox network collaborates in the willful corruption of our children's innocence is indefensible." I defend Seth McFarlane's programs, even though I don't watch them, for a lot of reasons but some of them are bound up in the absolute absurdity of this attack. FOX is not trying to mislead the public as to the content of the show, or if they are they're doing an extremely poor job of it; Family Guy is too well known a commodity for such a measure to work. People do not forget that they watched a show and found it unsuitable for their kids just because a network puts on an ad showing a guy in a flag suit or because sports announcers use a jocular tone when reading a promo for a show. Surveys – not those of dubious quality done by the PTC – indicate that the vast majority of parents do in fact concern themselves with what their children are watching on TV because it's part of their job as parents.

The PTC's Assault on Seth McFarlane continues with their Misrated section's look at American Dad. The episode of November 18th is rated TV-14 LV (Language and Violence) and the PTC believes it should contain an S descriptor (Sex) or at the very least a D descriptor (Dialogue). Reading their synopses of the episode it is a bit hard to think that they might be right about the S descriptor but given the TV-14 rating it is probably a close call. The trouble is that the plotline that the PTC is so excited about is so minor that the only references I can find to it outside of the PTC's agonised rant is two sentences in the Wikipedia episode recap: "Then, a child molester moves in Stan's neighborhood. Stan thinks he is his first target when he begins to molest Steve and his friends. And yet, if you were to believe the PTC's website you'd think the entire episode was given over to Randy the Molester.

Here are a couple of examples that the PTC gives of the sexual content of the episode.

  • Randy: "Hi. Sorry to disturb you. My name's Randy. I just moved in with my mom down the street…I was recently released from prison. And the law requires me to tell everyone within a 2 mile radius that I'm a registered sex offender…I used to work over at the water park, where I molested a TON of kids! But now I'm out now, so we'll see what happens."

Randy sees Stan's son Steve lying on the couch in his underwear. Randy's eyes bulge and he grins.

Randy: "So smooth! Can I come in? I would very much like to come in. I would like to be in your home."

  • Randy is shown spraying butter on the boys as they jump on a mattress, then tries to trick the boys into rubbing against him.

    Randy: "See? Isn't playing Popcorn fun? I'm the salt! All kernels have to wrestle me to get salted!"

    boy: "Goodbye, sweet virtue!"

Now as I mentioned this is apparently a minor subplot in an episode where the main plotline is devoted to Stan losing his "virginity" (he's supposedly never killed anyone) and Randy is introduced primarily as someone who is "deserving" of being murdered. Is this material suggestive? Yes, but is it deserving of the S and D descriptors? According to Wikipedia's article on the US TV content ratings (which I refer to a lot), the S descriptor relates to "moderate sexual situations," while the D descriptor concerns "highly suggestive dialogue." I'm not sure where in the dialogue the PTC cites – and remember they have a vested interest in bringing up the absolute worst elements of dialogue and descriptions of imagery – where you'd find "highly suggestive" in this. There are a couple of elements in the description that are worrisome as far as imagery that might warrant the S descriptor because it is for "moderate sexual situations" but as I've mentioned the PTC has a vested interest in portraying things at their worst, and for whatever reason the video clip that the PTC has provided for the episode is no longer available.

Still the PTC cloaks itself in outrage about the episode and the entire TV ratings system: "The entire TV ratings system, as it is presently administered, is a pathetic joke. The seamy sex talk and crass humor on American Dad is comparable to that found on such cable mainstays as Comedy Central's South Park. But while South Park is generally rated TV-MA and shown at 10:00 p.m. ET, Fox thinks that such programming is suitable for 14-year-olds…or even younger viewers, given the network's reluctance to accurately rate its shows. Only when TV ratings are assigned in a transparent manner, by an impartial outside organization – not by the networks, who benefit from misrating their own programs – will the ratings system be legitimate, and the V-Chip a useful tool worthy of the respect the entertainment industry gives it." It sounds vaguely reasonable doesn't it but there are a few things that the PTC forgets to mention. South Park gets a TV-MA rating for using all the language that 8-year olds know (as opposed to the language that parents wish/think their eight year olds know) and for far more graphic depictions of violence and sexual situations than anything American Dad (or Family Guy) have ever presented.

Let's dissect the PTC's statement a bit further. They say, "Fox thinks that such programming is suitable for 14-year-olds…or even younger viewers" but there is no indication of that except in the PTC's collective mind. The show airs in the last half hour of the third hour of Sunday primetime – the last half-hour in which FOX operates as a network, and it carries a TV-14 rating not a TV-PG rating. There is nothing, even in the skewed episode description that the PTC offers, that an aware 14 year-old would be unfamiliar with. The only "proof" that FOX thinks the show is suitable for people under 14 is the PTC's assertion that the networks (not just FOX) are unwilling to rate their shows accurately, but "accuracy" in this case is being defined entirely by the PTC. It can be argued that far from benefitting from misrating their own programs more liberally the networks would benefit from being harsh in their ratings if being harsh (adding a descriptor in borderline cases) earns them less complaints to the FCC for some violation, real or imagined. But here's the prize moment. The PTC says, "Only when TV ratings are assigned in a transparent manner, by an impartial outside organization – not by the networks, who benefit from misrating their own programs – will the ratings system be legitimate..." I suppose they mean something like the MPAA's ratings board, but even there the ratings are subjective rather than objective, as pointed out in the documentary This Film Not Yet Rated. About the only thing the PTC is right about is that ratings need to be assigned in a transparent manner (although again the MPAA is hardly an example of that) with clear definitions, known by the public, of what is acceptable at each level and what sort of content triggers various descriptors. Then again, if the FCC doesn't have clear and consistent definitions of obscenity, what luck would anyone else have.

Finally (and hopefully briefly) to the Cable Worst of the Week which is another "repeat offender" although this time Seth McFarlane has nothing to do with it. The show is FX's series about plastic surgery, Nip/Tuck. The PTC describes the November 13th episode of "blurring the lines between pornography and original basic cable programming," and being "little more than stylized filth." They mention "adultery, quasi-incest, sado-masochism, and graphic medical violence." What brings this about? Well the quasi-incest seems to be Sean fantasizing about a young patient Eden, while having sex with his current lover Carly. Eden – who in another scene lovingly transcribed by the PTC attempts to seduce Sean while he is conducting a post-operative examination on her newly reconstructed hymen – is the daughter of Olivia, the lesbian lover of Sean's ex-wife Julia. In fact the third scene that the PTC makes note of is Olivia and Julia after oral sex in which Julia has been rather unresponsive leading Olivia to wonder about her "technique." It isn't much of a review even for the PTC but it does include the oh so familiar (if ornamented) PTC whine, "But even if the show – for all its putrid content – has a following, why should every cable subscriber pay for it?" To which my reply is that they pay for it for the same reason the Jewish and Muslim cable subscribers in the United States pay for religious channels and get The 700 Club inflicted upon them when they subscribe to ABC Family – it is the nature of the system and until every cable company converts to digital cable which makes "pick and pay" pricing for cable cost effective for the cable companies that system isn't going to change.

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