Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Who Does The PTC Hate THIS Week?

Well, I've enjoyed my nice (and need I mention that I feel it was well deserved) break from going after the PTC, but it's probably time that I got back on the topic and pointed out the usual hypocrisy and mistakes that these people have been making. I won't go too far back; I did leave quite a backlog, and strange as it may seem sometimes I do try to keep this column down to a reasonable size.

Oh, and by the way, only one person has voted in my new NBC shows poll yet. Did I make a mistake by not putting "These shows all represent a big steaming heap of dog crap" as a possible response?

Speaking of the NBC lineup and steaming piles, the PTC is fulsome in their praise of the network for their commitment to "The Family Hour." This is one of the biggest piles of steaming you-know-what you are ever likely to come across. Sayeth PTC President Tim Winter, "We thank NBC for committing to air family-friendly programming during the Family Hour. Our recent research showed that this programming block has been flooded with adult content – on every broadcast network. Families do not want to be barraged with graphic sexual content, violence or profanity and want a time during the evening that is considered safe for the whole family to watch television. Responsible television programming is good business. We are heartened that NBC appears to be listening to the calls of so many parents and families, and we hope that other broadcast networks follow NBC's lead."

Well here's where the "big steaming pile" comes in. NBC may say that they're committed to the Family Hour (which as we all know doesn't exist) but an examination of the NBC lineup shows very little for the group to be praising if their own "Worst of the Week" is considered as a guideline. Here are the NBC shows for the first hour of primetime in the fall and I'll also include the winter lineup – new shows are in capitals:

M Chuck
TThe Biggest Loser
TMy Name Is Earl and 30 Rock
F CRUSOE / Deal or No Deal (W)
SFootball/ Dateline NBC (or MERLIN, depending on what you count as "The Family Hour" on Sunday nights).

Now here's the thing; setting aside Crusoe and Merlin for the moment because we don't know what the content of those shows will be, we are left with two shows that the PTC has criticized in the not so distant past. Although I can't find the specific reference at the moment, I seem to recall that the PTC was less than pleased with the scene in the Knight Rider where Mike Traceur is in bed with two women. And of course My Name Is Earl has been a frequent presence in the Misrated and Worst of the Week section of the PTC's site because of "sexual content", and because Jaime Pressly was in Playboy once upon a time which means she can't possibly be on the show except to titillate, and mostly I suppose because it isn't the "life affirming show" that the PTC wants it to be.

The PTC is using the statement by NBC Entertainment co-Chairiman Ben Silverman to highlight their Family Hour Study which "proves" that the "Family Hour" is rife with evil. Here are the statistics that the organization offers up:

  • In 180 hours of original programming, there were 2,246 instances of objectionable violent, profane and sexual content, or 12.48 instances per television hour. Since the average hour of primetime broadcast television contains about 43 minutes of non-commercial programming, this indicates that content inappropriate for children occurs about once for every 3.5 minutes of non-commercial airtime.
  • Scripted television was by far the most offensive overall with 16.68 incidents of overall foul content per hour, compared to 0.31 per hour for game shows and 5.82 per hour for unscripted programs.
  • Foul language was found in 76.4% of episodes that aired during the study period. Whether scripted or uttered on a reality program, foul language is found on almost every series airing during the Family Hour.
  • Throughout the study period, 677 sexual scenes or spoken sexual references were recorded, or 3.76 per hour.
  • The PTC recorded 754 violent acts and images during the study period, or 4.19 per hour.

Of course all of this has to be taken with a grain of salt when you consider what the PTC considers to be violence, sex, and foul language – they have a far more rigid concept in each of those areas than most people (for example, the body of a murder victim who has been killed off screen and is being examined – as on CSI – is considered an act of violence).

Still, to have a high official at a network, particularly one of the Big Four, come out and say something that sounds like a commitment to family friendly programming must seem like manna from heaven. So much so that they seem to ignore the fact that when he was the head of his own production company, Ben Silverman was the man behind Ugly Betty, another show which features prominently on the PTC hit list as well as reality fare like Parental Control and Date My Mom which hardly seem likely to meet with PTC approval. Tom Jicha of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel writes of Silverman, "NBC Entertainment President Ben Silverman isn't a snake-oil salesman. He's someone a snake-oil salesman would be wary of. Silverman, as is his job, is trying to get any positive publicity he can for his struggling network. All you need to know is NBC's 'Family Hour' will include My Name Is Earl and 30 Rock. These are terrific series. However, the storylines are often not very family friendly, especially according to the blue-nosed standards of the PTC and its also misleadingly titled runningmate, The American Family Association." Jicha finishes his column (which is devoted to this very press release by the PTC) by saying, "The PTC prefers to jump on Silverman's "Family Hour" categorization to make it look like they're actually getting things done. The pitch for donations will follow."

Turning now to the area of FCC fines, we find the PTC incensed about the refusal of the FOX network to pay an FCC levied fine of $91,000 related to a five year old reality show called Married By America. There's some interesting background on both the fine and one of the reasons why the network won't pay, but first let's see PTC president Tim Winter in full ire:

It is simply outrageous that Fox has chosen to fight its fine for clearly violating the indecency law. The $91,000 FCC fine is already paltry for a rich network that profits for free from the publicly-owned airwaves. Fox is intent on claiming the so-called 'right' to barrage families with sexually graphic content and appears willing to do everything it can to dodge its public responsibility by refraining from airing indecent material before 10:00 p.m.

Fox simply does not have the public's interest at heart. If it did, it would admit wrongdoing, pay the fine, and promise never again to air this kind of sexually graphic material before 10:00 p.m. The public airwaves are no place for the type of content that could be found on pay-per-view or premium cable channels. Fox must comply with the law if it is to continue using the public airwaves for free.

So what sort of content are we talking about here? Basically it was pixellated nudity. Ars Technica describes the scene in question: "The FCC first proposed a fine against the now-defunct Married in 2004 after it received complaints about a 2003 scene in which several engaged couples party at a strip club. According to the FCC's analysis, couples kiss, and lick whip cream off on-stage performers, whose naughty bits are pixelated." The problem is that, according to the FCC analysts, the pixelization wasn't enough. In denying FOX's appeal, the FCC wrote, "The fact that isolated body parts were 'pixelated' did not obscure the overall graphic character of the depiction. The mere pixelation of sexual organs is not necessarily determinative under our analysis because the material must be assessed in its full context. Here, despite the obscured nature of the nudity, it is unmistakable that the party goers are participating in sexual activities and that sexual organs are being exposed." FOX then submitted a response to the rejection of their appeal, which was rejected, unread, by the FCC. Why? Because it had too many pages and the network hadn't submitted a form ten days in advance telling the FCC that they would be submitting an appeal that was longer than 25 pages. FOX argued that since they were appealing on behalf of seven companies, each of which was permitted to send in a 25 page appeal, their 39 page appeal should have been acceptable. The whole thing smacks of Emperor Joseph II telling Mozart that his composition isn't any good because it had too many notes.

And then there's the size of the fines. Originally the fine was $1.18 million levied against 169 FOX stations, however, in going over the complaints filled with the Commission, it was discovered that there were only thirteen stations where the complaint had actually been filed from within that market. An examination of the companies involved points out an interesting thing. Among the stations fined were three FOX owned and operated stations, and stations from the Meredith Broadcasting Group, Journal Communications, Sunbeam Television, Sinclair Broadcasting and Mountain Licenses LLP. A check of those entities (except for Mountain Licenses) in Wikipedia indicates that most of their FOX stations are not located in small communities but in medium to large cities. Sunbeam for instance has only one FOX station and that's in Miami. Meredith's stations are in Portland Oregon, Las Vegas Nevada, and Greenville South Carolina. FOX's owned and operated stations are in the top 51 markets, with the single exception of a station in Ocala-Gainesville Florida. Does this mean that the show was considered obscene in New York but not in Louisville (just as an example) because there were no complaints from that market?

The PTC is of course taking their standard "the FCC is always right (unless they disagree with us) so don't you dare try to exercise your right to appeal you immoral swine" line on this matter. The problem is that the FCC is continuing its policy of changing what it defines as indecency as it goes along. Having defined an exposed female nipple as being indecent, they then moved on to the bare female buttocks in the NYPD Blue case. With that fined at the last minute they have now moved on to defining obscured nudity as indecent. The rejected FOX appeal (reported in the Ars Technica post) pointed out that a considerable amount of what the FCC cited as reasons for levying the fine was primarily in the mind of the analysts that the FCC used to form their decision. Take this for example: "At one point the FCC's analysis of the show claims that one performer places himself close to a woman in a miniskirt, 'apparently to lick off the whipped cream' from her body. But nobody actually licked whip cream off anyone's body in the program, Fox protests." Or this one: "The agency's summary charges that at another moment two performers wear tops 'but their buttocks are pixelated, presumably to obscure portions of their buttocks as well as the g-strings that cover their genitals.' But, as Fox attorneys note, the episode 'never showed the women without clothes or without pixelation, so there is no way for the Commission to know what undergarments they were wearing.'" FOX also pointed out that the FCC analysts used the word apparently a lot, so much so that the title of the Ars Technica piece is "Fox to FCC: your analysts' sexual fantasies not our problem." To quote again from the article, "the word 'apparently' constantly appears in the agency's analysis, one participant 'apparently about to kiss' a stripper; two strippers 'apparently kissing one another...' But none of these actions actually take place. 'The Commission repeatedly relies upon these assumptions about what it presumes is occurring off-camera to justify its description of the program as "sexually oriented",' Fox argues. 'In no event does [indecency] regulation extend to an imaginative viewer's or regulator's assumptions about what may be occurring between characters off-screen.' And finally, Fox asks, how can it be 'unmistakable that the party goers are participating in sexual activities and that sexual organs are being exposed' if all the performers' 'sexual' body parts are obscured by pixelation?" How indeed? It is the sort of thing that the PTC does all the time of course but one would tend to expect more from a government agency with the power to levy fines, or in the extreme pull a TV station's license. (Just as a side note, when the online version of the Washington Post reported on the FOX network's refusal to pay the fine, many of the posters were eager to see FOX punished, in part because it was FOX and in part – a big part – because they mistook the FOX Network for FOX News. They tended to ignore the fine points of the issue of freedom of speech and the definition of indecency.)

Of course for the PTC there doesn't have to be a sexual context – real, implied, or imagined – for the PTC to complain to the FCC and to rally their one million members to "The Cause." All it takes is any hint of nudity. The PTC has urged its members to lodge a complaint against the CW network for airing a nude photo shoot on their show America's Next Top Model, even though the nudity was blurred or pixelated. According to the PTC press release, issued on April 8th, "The episode showed a model posing fully nude for photographs while lying on a bed. The nudity was partially blurred. The episode aired on March 26, 2008, during the so-called 'Family Hour' at 8 pm ET/7 pm CT." Said PTC president Tim Winter, "It is irresponsible for the CW Network to air full frontal nudity on the public airwaves at 8:00 pm, and based upon our analysis of the broadcast in question we believe this has crossed the legal threshold for broadcast indecency. This episode portrays a photo-shoot where the model is entirely naked; and the nudity includes the model's pubic region in full view, albeit slightly blurred. This is not simply a matter of artistic freedom, as some might claim. Rather, this is about a television network intentionally pushing the envelope to establish a new acceptable nudity standard for the broadcast medium. The entire photo shoot scene, which lasted for more than a minute, is wholly gratuitous and undoubtedly intended to titillate. Sadly, it appears that CW believed this was appropriate content for children given that the show aired during the Family Hour. Even more children were exposed to this graphic content because of the time it aired."

For reference purposes I've managed to find an example of the "offensive" material which you can see above. I found it in the TVSquad recap of the episode in question. In case you aren't aware, TVSquad is owned by AOL, so I doubt that they'd post anything that any sane person would regard as indecent. The image in this case does appear to be more than "slightly blurred" to the point where – in this photo at least – it seems difficult to me to tell if she's fully nude or wearing large panties or indeed a body stocking. Now I understand that since a screen cap from a TV show only captures an instant in series of moving images there may have been scenes where her nudity was more obvious, but one can scarcely imagine based on this image that the photo session was intended to titillate. As for being gratuitous, the nude session, shot by a top photographer was a reward for an event in the show, and as any model worth her salt will tell you, nude photos are an important part of a model's portfolio. So I would hardly call this part of the show gratuitous. Nor do I believe that it is an effort to "establish a new acceptable nudity standard for the broadcast medium," given that we've seen nudity of equal measure in a show like Survivor. Indeed if anyone in this case is trying to "establish a new acceptable nudity standard for the broadcast medium," I would argue that it is the PTC in their effort to push back the established norms in this area. They did it with actual nudity in the NYPD Blue case, they did it in the Married By America case detailed above as related to obscured nudity with a (supposed) sexual contest, and now they're trying this. And if they succeed in this matter, what comes – or rather goes – in terms of what is acceptable next?

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