Thursday, January 31, 2008

Who Does The PTC Hate This Week – January 30, 2008

I think I've already blown some of the surprise on this already with my post on the FCC fine of NYPD Blue but as usual there is plenty of evidence to prove that the PTC's collective elevators don't go all the way to the top. By the way, I didn't much like the way last week's layout went so I think I'll go back to what I was doing before.

The big news at the PTC website is of course the FCC fine for Charlotte Ross's bottom on the 2003 episode of NYPD Blue. The PTC seems to be at risk of breaking their writing arms while patting themselves on the back with all the credit they are taking for this event, even as most North American males are prepared to take up a collection for ABC to help pay the fine – most of us would agree that Charlotte Ross's ass was worth it! This is from the statement issued by PTC president Tim Winter: "We are thankful that the FCC has finally taken a stand for children and families with this unanimous order. The delay in getting here has been frustrating, but we are delighted by the decision. PTC members and concerned citizens across the country spoke out against the nudity in the 2003 episode of NYPD Blue and today their pleas have been answered." Can I have an Amen? The language does have some of that quality after all, particularly that business of "their pleas have been answered." But of course America is not yet delivered from evil so long as the Godless networks actually delude themselves by thinking that they have the right to appeal. But right is on the PTC's side: "Despite the TV networks' scurrilous lawsuits claiming a 'right' to air profanity, and that a striptease in the middle of the Super Bowl was somehow not indecent, this order should serve as a reminder to every broadcaster and every network that they must use the public airwaves responsibly and in a manner which serves the public interest." But then the PTC calls on the spirit of Walt Disney (!) to make ABC see the light (emphasis in this is entirely mine): "Unfortunately, the networks have demonstrated a pattern of avoiding any accountability after airing indecent content. We hope that ABC will honor the namesake of its corporate parent and step up to the plate, pay its fine and accept full responsibility for its actions." But of course that's not enough. Like all good social conservatives who decry the intervention of government into peoples' lives – until it is something they want of course – the PTC calls on big daddy government to keep this from ever recurring: "We also call on Congress and the courts to listen to the people rather than the mega media conglomerate lobbyists and defend the authority of the FCC to protect the public airwaves from those who would abuse their privilege to use them."

Where to start on this? How about with the assertion about lawsuits? The PTC consistently insists that the appeal in the "fleeting obscenities" case that overturned the FCC decision on the airing of obscenities during awards shows and sporting events – in other words live unscripted situations where a person might say something that they'd normally say if they weren't on camera – somehow gives license to writers, producers and actors to use such language in any circumstance. As has been show repeatedly this far from the truth; indeed some PTC press releases (I'm thinking of some of their "Worst of the Week" pieces mainly) have included more uses of the "F" and "S" words than have been heard on broadcast TV since the fleeting obscenity decision was released by the Second Circuit. I am not familiar with the details of the CBS appeal on the Janet Jackson incident but I have to assume that the network's logic is similar; that this was a live broadcast and that no one at the network had any idea that Jackson's nipple would be exposed and that as soon as they were aware that her nipple was in fact visible the network "cut to an aerial view of the stadium, but was unable to do so before the picture was sent to millions of viewers' televisions." (That was from Wikipedia.) The fact is of course that both of the FCC's decisions, in the fleeting obscenities case and the NYPD Blue nudity case are clearly attempts by the FCC to make new broadcast regulations, breaking with decades of precedent about acceptable standards without consultation or a basis in law. And even if there was a law, as the PTC consistently demands from Congress, it is uncertain whether such a law would pass Constitutional muster. I suppose that if the courts found such a law to be unconstitutional the PTC would call for a Constitutional amendment to make it "right."

In his Maclean's Magazine blog, Jaime Weinman writes (far better than I can) about this matter:

I think one reason for the weaknesses of today's network TV is the post-Janet-Jackson fear of FCC fines, which has wiped out most of the new freedom that network shows started to attain in the '90s. (You'll often hear writers for The Simpsons pointing out nostalgically that in the '90s, they had total freedom to show Homer's bare buttocks; now, not so much.) It may seem counter-intuitive that taking away these freedoms could make shows worse, since network television didn't suffer in quality before they were free to show more skin. But while shows don't necessarily get better when they have less censorship, a reversal of relaxed censorship – which is what has happened in the last few years – does seem to cause creative problems. If network TV producers know what they are and aren't allowed to do under current levels of censorship, they can work around that. But now we have a situation where nobody knows what they will or won't get fined for, and producers find themselves in the position of being told they can't do things that were OK five years ago. That creates confusion, resentment and wasted time, none of which are elements of good television as we commonly understand it.

It is a fact. There are frankly amazing stories about Desperate Housewives producer Marc Cherry being forced spend an absurd amount of money to electronically "fuzz" the erect nipples of at least two of his actresses who prefer to work bra-less, or at least with minimal protection "up there." Why? Because he isn't whether that sort of thing will be acceptable to network standards and practices, and if it is whether it would then be acceptable to either the protests groups or the FCC. It's absurd, particularly when you remember a show like Three's Company, thirty years ago, where nipples were quite visible (interestingly it wasn't "sexpot" Suzanne Somers who had that wardrobe situation but rather Joyce DeWitt who was "perky"). Now I'm not insinuating that Three's Company was great TV, but what I am stating outright is that when they were doing the show the producers and directors weren't wasting time and money on absurdities like that. The situation that we are seeing now is a retrograde step, and despite the FCC's contention that their decisions are making the boundaries "perfectly clear," the only thing that is really "perfectly clear" is that writers, producers, and networks are holding back out of a sense of fear that if they make a step over the some imaginary line in the sand that the FCC has established but hasn't told anyone about they are going to get hit with a huge fine, possibly because of another absurdity, that the show runs an hour earlier in one time zone than another.

Jaime also had this to say about censorship: "The other reason that a sudden increase in censorship is bad for creativity is that social standards have a habit of getting more and more relaxed (overall, I mean), no matter what the standards may be at the television networks. The current level of TV censorship is somewhat similar to that of, say, 1988, but whereas that degree of censorship was more or less where social mores were at the time, it's now a bit behind the times." People like the PTC and the FCC like to talk about how the sort of material in the NYPD Blue scene or the "fleeting obscenities" case run contrary to community standards but who is gauging what those community standards are? I'm not sure that anyone really knows what the American public – a community if there ever was one – feels about this situation. What I know is that various unscientific polls that I've seen online have suggested that the overwhelming majority of respondents had no trouble with the NYPD Blue scene but considerable trouble with the FCC reaction to it.

I would disagree with Jaime's claim that the current level of censorship is at about 1988 levels though. Just in the matter of naked breasts, by that time we had Valerie Perrine topless in PBS's Steambath (1973), and bare-breasted African women in a number of scenes in Roots (1977) the latter allowed because "they add reality, not titillation, to the landmark miniseries." (Farrah Fawcett's also accidentally exposed breast in an episode of Charlie's Angels (Angels in Chains) in 1976). Would either of those scenes be permitted today? Would any producer even consider putting a scene like those (let alone the scene in 1992's My Breast where Meredith Baxter's bare breast was examined by a doctor as he planned her mastectomy) into a script in the current climate of censorship? The answer is no; or rather the answer he wouldn't do it on broadcast TV, he'd do it on basic cable and probably win awards for making edgy and important productions. And in the meantime network television suffers because the stories that it is allowed to tell – in the United States at least – are restricted.

Moving on, I feel confident in saying that the PTC had to reach a long ways to come up with this week's Broadcast Worst of the Week. Pickings are mighty slim out there to the point where there is no new Cable Worst of the Week this time around – they're still incensed about the episode of Nip/Tuck with the suicide bomber story. For broadcast they finally settled on continuing their war with Seth McFarlane's Family Guy (although this was aired by FOX without the permission of Seth McFarlane who is on strike) but I have to say that even their writer doesn't seem to have his heart in it. The episode for January 13th is – at least for the PTC – based around "disturbing sexual innuendo and sexual content involving Stewie, the show's talking baby." I say "at least for the PTC" because according to the summary "Peter decides to grow a mustache, and after being mistaken for a fireman, ends up lending a hand when a fire breaks out at a local fast food restaurant. The owner gives him unlimited burgers as a thank you, but he eats too many and has a stroke. When Peter recovers, he vows to expose the fast-food company for what it really is, becoming friends with a genetically engineered cow along the way." Stewie's bet with Brian, that Stewie can become the most popular kid at James Woods High School is a B-plot that they don't even mention. Here's a transcript of one of the scenes that the PTC objects to:

Stewie: "Do you know that I've got a date with Connie Demico this Saturday night at Anal Point?"

Brian: "Ah. I've heard about that place."

Stewie: "Really? What's it like? 'Cause I have no idea."

Brian: "Well uh, I suppose if you imagine it like a parking space that you think 'gosh there's no way I'm going to be able to fit in there' but then you fold in the side view mirrors and sure enough, well look at that."

Stewie: "Well in that scenario it sounds like I'd rather be the parking space than the car."

Brian: "Yeah, that's what I've always guessed."

They then state that after Stewie and Connie go to Anal Point, Connie whips off her top revealing her bra and asks whether they're going to "do it or what?" Remember, as far as she's concerned Stewie is a teenager and the coolest boy in school. Connie "screams in horror at the size of his penis" (not in the clip that I saw) and at school spreads the word about his size. In revenge "Stewie gets back at Connie by tricking her into kissing him while she strips off his disguise. Connie is arrested for molesting a baby." Is this crude humour? Undoubtedly but I'm not sure I'd go so far as to describe it as "disturbing sexual innuendo and sexual content" let alone their final summation: "This perverted plot is clearly inappropriate for broadcast television." Perhaps, but given some of the shows that the PTC labels as "Best of the Week, I think I prefer this (or I would if I ever watched it).

Cashmere Mafia is the Misrated show this week. This is what the PTC said in the introduction to their article: "A rating of TV-PG DL suggests that parents might not want to their young children to be exposed to some bad language and sexual dialogue, but that the remainder of a given television episode is certainly safe for viewing by older children and other family members. At least, that is the conclusion of the executives responsible for rating TV programs.... Apparently, ABC believes that children are mature enough to handle the themes of adultery and promiscuity, as well as the depictions of semi-nude women, that dominated the episode." They may be right, although their description of the episode is, as usual, alarmist. Instead of looking at the PTC's description of the episode, let's start up with a reminder of what TV-PG means. According to Wikipedia TV-PG "signifies that the program is unsuitable for younger children without the guidance of a parent." They further add some examples of show that are rated TV-PG and why (i'll drop the names of the shows and replace them with ellipses): "Some game shows are rated TV-PG ... mainly for their suggestive dialog. Most reality shows are rated TV-PG ... for their suggestive dialog or coarse language." Now the question here is whether the rating should have been TV-14, the next highest rating which is also the most common rating in TV.

The PTC focuses on two specific storylines. First is the situation surrounding Juliet and her husband who has had an affair. Juliet is considering having an affair of her own in revenge. She hasn't reached a decision yet but because of some things that happen in the episode she opts to have an assignation with an old boyfriend which ends in his hotel room, with Juliet in her bra and panties. However (and the PTC doesn't actually mention this but I know because I saw this episode) she doesn't consummate the relationship. The other storyline involves Zoe, who is having a problem with the fact that a younger woman in the office is included on a business trip by Clayton, her fellow managing director at Gorham Sutter (interestingly the PTC, unable to grasp the concept that Zoe and Clayton are equals at the company refers to him as Zoe's boss). After she sees the young woman slip into the married Clayton's hotel room, she confronts him about the situation, but according to the PTC, she "also worries that she is insecure in her own sexuality" and so, "decides to test her sexual attractiveness by walking into the room where her husband is working on his computer, ripping off her top to reveal that she is not wearing underwear, and attempting to seduce him. Her nude back is seen from behind."

Here's the point where I'm not entirely sure about. It may very well be that the PTC is right about the rating of this episode. They write: "Clearly intended to capture the edgy tone of Sex and the City (as well as some that program's fans), Cashmere Mafia contains material that is simply too mature for a PG rating. With depictions of women lolling around in lingerie and its many references to sex, this program is without a doubt too racy not to carry an S-descriptor for sexual content. It could even be argued that the program deserves a TV-14 rating." Now I don't think that the episode qualifies for the TV-14 rating; the scenes involved are simply not severe enough to reach that level. If the best that the PTC could come up with were Juliet "lolling around in lingerie", Zoe's bare back and the way she talks to Clayton about his affair (she tells him that he's "letting your little head think for your big head"). It doesn't reach what I believe is the standard for TV-14. The question for me is the "S" descriptor. For that to be applied on a TV-PG show requires "mild sexual situations." But what constitutes a "mild sexual situation?" And indeed is a (one) "mild sexual situation" enough. I'm thinking here about Juliet in her underwear with her "almost lover," because we've seen plenty of scenes where a wife surprises her husband by dropping a coat or whatever and revealing that she's wearing nothing underneath. My gut instinct says that the episode probably should have the "S" descriptor but it's probably a close call.

This week's TV Trends article declares that "NBC Joins the TV Sex Parade." According to the article "Until recently, NBC has been the best (or perhaps a better designation would be "the least bad") in terms of inappropriate and offensive depictions of sex during prime time. Certainly NBC's new fall season did not feature the flood of tawdry, sex-obsessed sitcoms and boundary-pushing dramas that ABC, CBS, CW and Fox did. Unfortunately, this is changing. Since the beginning of the New Year, NBC is increasingly joining the other networks in pumping sexual situations into its programming." Of course they don't just say that without "evidence." Here are some "proofs" that NBC has joined the Sex Parade.

  • Playboy Playmate of the Year Tiffany Fallon was one of the "celebrities" featured on Celebrity Apprentice: "In allowing her to take a place with the other accomplished celebrities and professionals, NBC implied that someone who takes her clothes off for a living is every bit as respectable and appropriate a role model for children as an Olympic gold medalist or a multi-platinum country singer." The episode (since Fallon was the first celebrity eliminated) also featured an appearance by Jenna Jameson "demurely billed on camera as an 'Adult Film Star' (i.e., "actress" in pornographic movies)." The episode ended with Trump firing Fallon for not involving Hugh Hefner in the fund-raising challenge: "Trump sneers, 'I've known a lot of Playmates of the Year,' and repeatedly boasts of his close friendship with the elderly exploiter of women." Personally I find the description of Tiffany Fallon as "someone who takes her clothes off for a living" to be mean spirited. Oh, and by the way, Tiffany Fallon was probably in the early stages of her pregnancy with husband Joe Don Rooney of the band Rascal Flats during her brief time on Celebrity Apprentice.
  • The game show 1 vs. 100, featured former Playboy Playmates of the Month, triplets Nicole, Erica and Jaclyn Dahm. Worst of all the show aired "at the Family Hour of 8:00 p.m. ET (7:00 p.m. CT/MT)." Former Playboy Playmates in the non-existent (except for the PTC) Family Hour – proof positive of NBC's determination to undermine the American way of life.
  • In the January 10th episode of My Name Is Earl, Earl repays his debt to a stripper who was injured when "Earl shines a laser pointer at a stripper's chest, causing her to fall off her pole and become injured" by becoming a stripper himself. "He takes off his shirt to reveal tassels covering his nipples. As the crowd hoots, Earl spins the tassels. Later, Earl states that 'some old Texan dude just offered to buy me a boob job.'" It sounds like a funny scene to me but of course to the PTC this is "in keeping with the program's continual downward slide," and they add, "Naturally, this episode also aired during the Family Hour."
  • On Las Vegas (which the PTC hates anyway) Danny, "in an attempt to empathize with his pregnant wife, donning a female fat suit – complete with tassels covering his 'breasts.'" Well the PTC has never been known for getting their facts right and this is no different. First, Delinda isn't Danny's wife, she's his girlfriend. Second what Danny was wearing was not a "female fat suit" but rather a Pregnancy Empathy Belly and can you imagine the stink if the "breasts" on the belly weren't covered?
  • It's not just shows that bother the PTC there's also the promo for Lipstick Jungle: "The ad goes on to show a woman's dress being ripped off, and an apparently nude man asking a female character, 'Do you want to take a picture?' But the commercial's biggest brag is the tagline, 'by the creator of Sex and the City!'" Because of course in the PTC lexicon Sex and the City is one of the most disgusting shows ever. In fact the PTC says of the commercial, "If ever proof was needed of network television executives' desire to flood prime-time broadcast TV with the graphic and explicit content previously reserved to adult premium cable, that commercial provides it…with NBC as a willing collaborator."
  • Then there was Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I can't adequately paraphrase on this one so here is what the PTC writes: "While the foregoing examples are distasteful, they are as nothing compared to the horrifically gory scene of sexual violence that greeted viewers of Law and Order: Criminal Intent on January 16th. Within a minute of the episode's opening, a camera focused on a pool of blood on the floor of a medical examination room. Panning along the floor, the camera revealed a dead man's body, his legs in stirrups used for gynecological exams, his pants around his ankles. The puddles of blood on the floor apparently emanate from the man's mutilated genital region, and the shot ends by showing a vaginal speculum jammed into the murdered man's mouth. This grotesquely graphic and gratuitous imagery is more appropriate (if that is the word) to an R-rated movie than prime time broadcast television. The episode, which also featured a teenage boy bragging about manufacturing cocaine and calling a red-headed female police officer 'firecrotch' as he swills vodka, aired at 9:00 p.m. ET – which is only 8:00 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones."

I really don't know where to start on this whole thing. The whole business about the Playboy models (Tiffany Fallon and the Dahm sisters) should probably be dismissed with the scorn that the claims both richly deserve. As I said about the My Name Is Earl episode, it sounds like a funny scene, complete with a neatly done Anna Nichole Smith reference (Anna Nichole met her "old Texas dude" Howard Marshall in a strip club). Similarly the "pregnancy belly" is a nicely done joke about the nature of Las Vegas the city. As for Law & Order: Criminal Intent I can't imagine a more specious argument coming from an organization like the PTC with repeatedly complains about scenes from the other Law & Order shows. The PTC is, as usual in these TV Trends articles, showing itself to be puritanical, strident, and in the end absurd.

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