Friday, February 29, 2008

Who Does The PTC Hate THIS Week? – February 29, 2008

Every so often I get thoroughly frustrated when I write about the Parents Television Council. I really don't like these people, and as a Canadian I really don't get where they're coming from. Every time I see the PTC complain about some real or imagined bit of indecency I do so with the knowledge that virtually everything they complain about – since it's usually sex rather than true violence – could be seen at any time of the day on Canadian TV and wouldn't raise an eyebrow. There is no Canadian equivalent of the PTC, for which I will say "thank heaven for small mercies." In fact, during the infamous "Nipplegate" incident, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council received more complaints about an commercial that was perceived to be sexist than it did about seeing Janet Jackson's breast.

So why do I care personally about the actions of the PTC? If Canada produced most or all of the shows seen on the Canadian airwaves I wouldn't care a whit. But we don't. Our private broadcasters mostly do a great job of self-regulation but really they're capable of doing this because they buy most of their shows from the United States. And most of the time they buy them from the US broadcast networks, a group which is so cowed by the fear of the FCC and that their advertisers will desert them at the very threat of a boycott that they leave edgy programming to those who don't face regulation, the cable networks.

Okay, now I had this all planned out to show how this past week the PTC had moved from the absurd through the foolish to the idiotic. And then they went and changed their pages. The stuff is still available in their archives. There's a bit of doggerel that is near Vogon-like in quality that shows that what the PTC really wants is for TV to return to the 1960s as if nothing were wrong; apparently TV was lost irretrievably with All In The Family. Then there was the claim that the game show 1 vs. 100 deserved a "D" descriptor because host Bob Saget made a condom joke, and regular mob member Sister Rose disapproved ("'Since 1988, what company's trademarked slogan is "Just Do It"?' Along with the correct answer of 'Nike,' one of the other possible answers listed was Trojan condoms. When the contestant answered correctly, host Bob Saget responded with a ribald riposte: 'You're positive it wasn't Trojan?... I'm just ribbing you.' This reference to (ribbed) condom was so out of place that one of the show's recurring 'mob members,' the nun Sister Rose, felt compelled to ask Saget, 'Family show?'") which wasn't precisely how things went down. Oh yeah, and they lumped the presence of the Dahnm Triplets (the first triplet Playboy Playmates) in there with the dialogue in some manner that I swear I don't get. But those have been archived now. Instead we get what is essentially a full-court press against two shows; the CBS airing of Dexter and the recently cancelled Las Vegas, with a slam at the way that Jericho was rated thrown in for good measure.

Let's get Jericho out of the way first. The PTC's complaint here is simple. They think the show deserved to be rated TV-PG LV rather than TV-PG L. According to the PTC, "Early in the episode, a fierce battle scene is shown. Several dead bodies are dragged away from the fray while guns fire around them. Later, the body of a man who was killed while attempting to sneak into Jericho is shown, to prove to the main characters that they are still at risk. And if these incidents were not enough to make a case for a V designator, there are numerous other situations involving gun threats scattered throughout the episode." Well they aren't. The V designator refers to "moderate violence" at the TV-PG level. The battle scene was shot in such a way that we saw was not people being shot but rather people firing guns, and the wounded (in virtually all cases) being dragged off the firing lines. The scenes with the wounded and, later the scene of the man who was killed – off-screen – are not to my mind depictions of violence but rather the aftermath of violence. Indeed in the case of the man who was shot trying to sneak into town, the only "proof" we have that he was shot was the statement by the character Major Beck. The other scenes involving "gun threats" may be considered violence but do they really reach the threshold for "moderate" violence that would be required for a V descriptor.

Moving on we come to Dexter. I should preface this by saying that while I've recorded the first two episodes of the CBS version of Dexter, I haven't watched them yet. Then again I suspect that the PTC hadn't seen the edited – some might say bowdlerized – version of Dexter when they started castigating CBS for repurposing the show for broadcast TV after it had aired on the premium Showtime network. (I should also mention that even when I do watch it I won't see the US ratings; in one of those things that can happen only in Canada thanks to our cable laws the CTV network – which has the rights to the broadcast version of Dexter – will simultaneously substitute their signal over top of the CBS signal so I won't see the Canadian rating not the US rating. It's particularly ironic since given the broadcast regulations in Canada CTV could show the uncensored version of the show in the same time slot as the CBS show, but what they couldn't do is substitute that signal - including the commercials of course – over top of the CBS signal. And that would affect their viewership ratings and ad revenue.)

The first of the two references to Dexter was a press release which essentially called on advertisers and local affiliates to boycott the broadcast of the series. Or perhaps their intent was to let viewers know they should write their "Dear Sir, you cur" letters to tell advertisers that they would never buy another of their products until they pull their advertising from this horrendous show. The press release has the very provocative title "CBS Deems Serial Killer Show to be Appropriate for 14-Year Old Children." The press release makes a major point of the fact that the edited series received a TV-14 rating from CBS, but fails to mention what – if any – descriptors the premier episode received. All they say is this: "Despite repeated public promises for responsible edits and accurate ratings guidelines for parents, CBS elected to assign this graphic program with an adult storyline a TV-14 rating, meaning that CBS decided that the show would be appropriate for children as young as 14 years of age." The PTC follows this with a complaint that, "depictions of violence were barely altered from the Showtime Network original format," and in fact, according to Wikipedia, the primary edits for the broadcast version were primarily for language "with scenes involving dismemberment of live victims somewhat shortened." The mythical 14-year old child whose mind is irrevocably corrupted by this show is the main focus of the PTC rant along with the callousness of the executives at CBS, as delivered by the organization's president Tim Winter: "What could possibly lead them to determine that a show about a pathological serial killer 'hero' could be appropriate for 14-year old children? The only reason is corporate greed. CBS knows full well that advertisers would flee in droves if the program's rating accurately reflected its content. The suits at CBS have wantonly turned their back on the fundamental public interest obligations incumbent upon those who use the public airwaves –
even spending $4.2 million in 2007 to lobby the federal government about indecent programming and other issues." Of course Winter offers absolutely no proof of the assertion that advertisers would flee "in droves" if the show were given the TV-MA rating that Winter and the PTC insists that it deserves. In fact, while my understanding of the advertising industry is limited it is my belief that programs are not put on the air in a vacuum and that advertisers, or at the very least ad agencies, get to see episodes of the programs before they air to decide whether or not they will buy ad time. In this case they would obviously be fully aware of much of the content even before the series was considered for airing since the show had been on the air – if not available for advertising sales – for two seasons on the premium cable network Showtime. In other words, advertisers were fully aware of what they were getting when they purchased ad time on this show.

The second Dexter related piece is a TV Trends article titled "Dexter's Depth of Depravity." Surprisingly though, it really isn't an article exposing the "depths of depravity" of Dexter. No, based on what I've read, it is just as much an article exposing the depths of depravity of the professional TV critics who have had nice things to say about Dexter coming to broadcast TV. They even say it, after going through a couple of paragraphs saying what they invariably say about Dexter and CBS: "a graphically violent and bloody drama with a serial killer for a hero" for the show, and "CBS hit a new low for television" for the network. Having got that out of the way the PTC turns to the critics as a group: "The implications of this move are dire, but even more so has been the wave of approval and adulation with which TV critics and entertainment industry insiders have greeted the series' arrival in every American home. For what could be better, these critics seem to ask, than that the publicly-owned airwaves be used to glamorize dismemberment and serial murder?" There's a little dig at '70s liberal critics: "Once, critics condemned the Dirty Harry movies as 'fascist' because they depicted a police officer shooting criminals. Today, they cheer Dexter because it depicts a serial killer torturing and dismembering criminals." Then later the writer comments, "This tendency on the part of TV writers and critics to dismiss the seriousness of Dexter's glamorization of evil is especially galling because it is so disingenuous. The show doesn't glorify or promote Dexter's actions, critics claim; it's just a character study of a conflicted individual, they say. But would CBS show – would Hollywood even make – a program with, say, a 'conflicted' Ku Klux Klan member as the hero? Or a "charming" killer who stalks and murders homosexuals? Of course not – and they shouldn't. (emphasis theirs) Such programs would be grossly offensive and downright harmful; and the fact that Hollywood doesn't make shows like this demonstrates that they know how harmful such programs could be. By showing such actions or ideas in a favorable light, TV would be making them seem unexceptional and even appealing; and the more often such a show was repeated, the more common and appealing such actions would seem." Of course the creators of the show are not immune from criticism, but it seems to be less muted than the criticism of either CBS or the critics: "Dexter's creators claim that by choosing to make the hero of their program a warped serial killer, they aren't glamorizing his actions. But this is incorrect. TV has portrayed negative character types before; but nearly always, programs show such characters being punished for their crimes. On Dexter this is not the case. In fact, Dexter is portrayed as a charming, likeable young man…who just happens to cut off people's arms and legs while they are still alive. By making Dexter an appealing personality and allowing him to escape the consequences of his actions, the program is making him a hero, and is reducing gruesome mass murder to a cute, harmless eccentricity."

Well let's go into this for a bit. First of all, it should be obvious to anyone with two working brain cells to rub together (and I'm not going to say that this would eliminate virtually every member of the PTC; I'll think it but I won't say it) that the critics who wrote about Dirty Harry in the 1970s are not the same critics who are writing about Dexter today. Even if they were, there is a disconnect between Harry Callahan, operating under the cover of authority often with scant regard for the laws he was sworn to uphold, and Dexter, who admits to being exactly what he is, a killer in the mould of Hannibal Lecter. The difference between Lecter and Dexter is that the latter's tendencies are directed by a set of rules. Insane rules – given the insanity of using a serial killer to get the killers that the law can't (which by the way is similar to the plot of the second Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force except that in that movie it ws vigilante cops instead of serial killers) but rules nonetheless. Callahan broke the rules he was given to get the job done; Dexter obeys they rules he was given by his adoptive father.

But let's go further into this criticism of the critics. The PTC says (slightly edited from the quote above), "would Hollywood even make – a program with, say, a 'conflicted' Ku Klux Klan member as the hero?" The answer of course is yes, if you extend the definition of "program" to include feature movies. The one that I'm particularly thinking of is American History X which looked at a former neo-Nazi who tries to prevent his younger brother from following the same path. There have been other examples as well. Not to mention stories about people (frequently abused women) who have acted outside of the law to ensure their own safety, for example the TV movie The Burning Bed. Indeed there is a whole sub-culture in American media and fiction that celebrates the notion of vigilante justice as a solution when conventional law enforcement was deemed inadequate – Charles Bronson's Death Wish films are an outstanding example. I'm not sure what sets Paul Kersey in those movies apart for Dexter except perhaps that Dexter is probably surer of his victims' crimes.

The thing that I find disingenuous is not the various TV critics tendency to "dismiss the seriousness of Dexter's glamorization of evil" but rather the PTC's continual and repeated mischaracterization of the title character. They consistently refer to the character of Dexter as the "hero" of the show. I'm sure that my more literary readers will cringe at this description (right Bill Crider?). Dexter is more properly described as the protagonist of the piece, defined by Wiktionary as "the main character in a literary work or drama." Dexter is the protagonist of the series in much the same way that Macbeth is the protagonist of what my theatrical friends call "The Scottish Play". No one would describe Macbeth as a hero. In fact a more accurate term for both Macbeth and Dexter – and indeed for Kersey and Callahan – would be anti-hero, defined as "a central character in a story, film or play who lacks the conventional heroic qualities seen in the archetypical hero." And I'm sure that there are at least some people at the PTC who understand the concept of the anti-hero as a protagonist. But of course it suits the PTC's purpose to use the term "hero," a term which has many evocative qualities. As an audience we empathize with heroes, we support their actions, we cheer their deeds and yes, we observe them as a role model. But a hero isn't necessarily the protagonist; in the play MacDuff probably embodies the qualities of a hero but MacDuff isn't the central figure of Macbeth, it is the regicide (killed Duncan), the man who orders the assassination of his best friend and his son (had Banquo killed though his son Fleance escaped death), and mass murderer (had everyone in MacDuff's castle including his wife and young children hacked to death with swords) Macbeth who is the protagonist because we see the world through his perspective. In watching the play we don't want to emulate Macbeth any more than any sane person would want to emulate an essentially soulless serial killer. But calling the lead character in Dexter the show's "hero" generates outrage and protests (and presumably donations) from people who see the PTC as a way of voicing their legitimate concern about what their children see on TV.

The attack on Las Vegas is also two-fold. In a major press release the PTC calls on its members in the Central and Mountain time zones only to send complaints to the FCC about the February 15th episode of Las Vegas – ironically the last episode to be aired – for "airing female nudity during prime time." As the PTC describes it: "three girls gather together in the center of the casino floor and begin to disrobe. They strip until they are naked and then begin running around the casino. In the security office, the girls can be seen on the television monitors running around the casino naked. Their buttocks are visible, and only shadows obscure their breasts and groins." Inevitably there is a mention of the $1.4 million fine against "52 ABC affiliates" (clearly the PTC refuses to acknowledge the drawdown to about 40 stations as a result of the FCC appeals process) stating that "that didn't deter NBC from airing barely obscured female nudity during a primetime airing of Las Vegas." In fact Time Winter's statement about the Las Vegas episode seems to suggest that this was deliberate policy on the part of NBC: "NBC seems eager to test the FCC's resolve to fine stations for violating broadcast decency laws. I remind NBC that the broadcast airwaves are public property. The TV networks do not own them. The TV stations do not own them. The industry must be held accountable for the content they air and the FCC must act in the public interest by slapping NBC with a significant indecency fine."

Setting aside my own opinion of the FCC's rightness or wrongness on the ruling in the NYPD Blue case, the claim that there is anything even approaching equivalency between the scene in Las Vegas and the scene in NYPD Blue is so absurd as to make a body weep with laughter. Even the PTC acknowledges that the scene is shot in such a way as to obscure the women's breasts and groins. In their appeals decision the FCC said in the NYPD Blue case that "the partial views of her [Charlotte Ross] naked breast from behind and from the side are not sufficiently graphic and explicit in and of themselves to support an indecency finding." In other words it was her bare buttocks which were seen fully nude from behind. By contrast in the scene from Las Vegas the most you can see is a long distance shot of one of the women. Most of the shots are seen through the casino's security system and are overhead shots. There may be shots of the side of the women's buttocks but there is nothing to indicate that that they are not wearing a G-string or a thong. Indeed the shot (which I saw on a real TV as opposed to what you can see in this little streaming box) didn't seem to this viewer to contain anything that would be actionable even under the current FCC regime. I think that what we are seeing here is an attempt by the PTC to force the FCC to further tighten up the boundaries of what is and isn't acceptable, and my singular fear is that the FCC might ignore precedent even further and do just that.

The second part of the PTC's assault is aimed at the same episode in the organization's Broadcast Worst of the Week category. They also point out the "gratuitous nudity": "The first minutes of the program contained this gratuitous nudity. In an introductory scene, three women create a distraction by stripping their clothes off and streaking through the casino. As the security team watch on the monitors and leer at the women in delight, Las Vegas' viewers see the scene carry on for nearly an entire minute, as the women are depicted from every angle and from various distances, including mere feet from the camera. The women's breasts bounce as they run, further highlighting the blatant nudity and sexuality of the scene." Taking this point by point, the security team do not "leer at the women in delight." It is true that one character, Mitch (the guy in the wheel chair) does make some "sexist" comments and is distracted by the scene – which of course was exactly the point, to distract the people in the Casino Security room so that the two men would be able to assemble their guns – but he is the only one, and his actions fit with what we know about this character. The rest of the description is exaggeration and absurd. The very nature of running means that the viewer never gets a truly clear view of any of the women at any given time. Indeed, "mere feet from the camera" usually gives the viewer only a glimpse of part of the body. In fact though, the bulk of the scene is viewed through the casino's overhead camera system rather than on ground level. As for the women's breasts bouncing as they run, that tends to happen whether the women are nude or dressed if the women are "big" enough. The PTC also points to a subplot concerning Mike's bachelor party in which his uncle, a church deacon, brings two strippers to his nephew's bachelor party (Danny had cancelled the strippers because of the presence of Mike's father and uncle). In what I'm sure the PTC will see as yet another of TV's assaults on religion, Mike's uncle, "is shown dancing suggestively while sandwiched between the girls. Apparently aroused by one of the girls, the minister tells his wife he is leaving her for the stripper and staying in Las Vegas." Let us again note that these "strippers" are not at any time seen in any state of nudity – or even implied nudity – which is unheard of for a bachelor party. But then again, the PTC never really develops this point.

It is perhaps the opening and closing paragraphs of this article that show the opinion that the PTC holds towards network television. In their opening paragraph they say: "Last week, NBC wrote a new chapter in ongoing story of ever-increasing indecency on broadcast television. On February 15th the writers of Las Vegas showed that their lust for ratings overshadows any concept of common decency, not to mention obedience to federal law concerning broadcast decency, when they depicted three fully nude women in prime time at 10:00 p.m. ET – which is 9:00 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones. This episode was a significant step in advancing the entertainment industry's agenda: the elimination of the line between decency and indecency." It is yet another example of over-exaggeration and overblown, inflammatory rhetoric on the PTC's part, meant to paint the networks as big, bad, evil and out to pervert the American public. And all in the quest for ratings, which of course means money. They don't mention – presumably because at this point they didn't know but the ratings for this episode, which wasn't promoted as being anything beyond a two hour season finale and certainly not promoted with an emphasis on the supposed draw of female nudity, wasn't enough to save the show from cancellation (dammit). But for overblown rhetoric, not to mention the refusal to acknowledge that they've won (for the moment) this particular battle thanks to the NYPD Blue situation, you can't beat this final statement: "This level of nudity, shown on broadcast TV, in prime time, is of major concern to family viewers. But offensive as it was, the nudity in this episode is not even the worst part. The real concern is that such programming will normalize nudity on prime-time broadcast television. Unless viewers act now, it is only a matter of time until nudity is a regular occurrence on television." This is hogwash. In the period when nudity – real nudity – was a prevalent feature on network television, the NYPD Blue years, there were only two regular prime time series that showed bare buttocks or other forms of nudity on even a semi-regular basis. They were NYPD Blue, produced by Steven Bochco, and Brooklyn South, which ran for a single year on CBS and was produced by Steven Bochco. And yet the PTC would have us believe that the mostly implied nudity in this scene from Las Vegas is enough to "normalize nudity on prime-time broadcast television" and mean that it won't be long, "until nudity is a regular occurrence on television." Again I say hogwash.

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