That the Parents Television Council is woefully out of touch with anyone except their own members and the assorted right of center (well right of right is probably more accurate) and conservative religious groups that rally around it is pretty much a given in the stuff that I write about them. But let's face it, most of the people who read this blog or most of the other blogs by critics – professional or amateur – weren't offended by Charlotte Ross's bare buttocks on NYPD Blue, enjoy Gordon Ramsay because of the swearing that is perpetually bleeped, have no objection to the movie clips shown on the latest American Film Institute special, and couldn't give a flying "frack" about Bingo America on GSN. It sometimes gets monotonous for me to take on this group every week or so pointing out the restrictive nature of what they want, nominally in the name of protecting "the children" but in reality treating all Americans like children, but my resolve is steeled every time they present an amicus brief to a court or try to get advertisers to boycott a show that they don't like. I mean sure, I'm a Canadian and so far they haven't stretched they octopus-like tentacles north of the border or spawned a Canadian imitator (although the group that pushed the Conservatives to force Bill C-10 through the Commons may be a seed for that – the link is to a search for everything that the estimable Dennis McGrath has written on the subject, which I have rather shamefully not touched) but given how much our private television networks rely on American content, that which affects the United States most assuredly has an effect on what we watch – and maybe even what we find acceptable – in Canada.
Let's start off with the PTC's Amicus Brief to the US Supreme Court in the "Inadvertent Obscenities" case. The basis of this case was a couple of incidents in which the "F-word" and the "S-word" were aired during a live awards show. The FCC ruled that the use of these words were indecent. The networks as a group appealed the decision to split panel of the Second Circuit court of appeals which found that the FCC had acted incorrectly and arbitrarily by overturning nearly fifty years of precedent in the airing of live programming. Of course that's not the way that the PTC sees it. In his press release made at the time of the filing of the Amicus brief PTC president Tim Winter said the following:
Our Amicus brief asks the Supreme Court to address the constitutionality of the FCC's ability to enforce the broadcast decency law. Rather than simply ruling on an administrative aspect of this matter, we hope the Court will fully rebuke last year's Second Circuit Court decision. That decision ran contrary to nearly 80 years of jurisprudence about the publicly-owned airwaves, not to mention running contrary to the overwhelming sense of the nation.
Two federal judges in New York City ostensibly stole the airwaves from the public and handed ownership to the TV networks. They said that broadcasters can use the 'F-word' and 'S-word' in front of children at any time of the day. We urge the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court's decision which clearly defies the public interest, congressional intent, long-established law and common sense.
Actually that's not what the court did or said and anyone with a lick of sense knows it. The court decision stated that the FCC ruling was arbitrary in that it overturned without warning fifty years of precedent which acknowledged that things sometimes are said on live television in the heat of the moment. In their Amicus Brief the PTC cites the Court's decision in the FCC vs. Pacifica case in which the radio broadcast of a recording of George Carlin's Seven Words You Can't Say On TV, during the afternoon was found to be indecent. The PTC claims:
- Broadcast television is still a uniquely pervasive influence in America, it is still uniquely accessible to children, and it still confronts the viewer in the privacy of the home.
- The FCC's action under review here is not a ban on broadcasting, only a channeling of certain kinds of language to a time when children are less likely to be watching and listening. The same was true in Pacifica.
- Here, as in Pacifica, the order at issue is from an agency with long experience in the area being regulated and it is declaratory, not punitive. The FCC has not levied any penalty against Fox arising out of the 2002 and 2003 broadcasts.
- And, of course, here and in Pacifica the broadcast medium is one that traditionally has been afforded less First Amendment protection than others.
But, though the PTC and indeed the FCC do not choose to recognise it, there are differences. The biggest of course is that in Pacifica the station aired a recording of George Carlin's routine, he didn't come into the station and do it live. The presumption must be that someone at the station had heard the recording before airing it. Even if he had done it live, it could be argued that unless the routine was entirely new, someone at the radio station would have known the content and been in a position to decide that it was unacceptable. Neither of these circumstances exists with a live awards show. This leads us to the question of "channeling of certain kinds of language to a time when children are less likely to be watching and listening." Again this is more applicable to the Pacifica case than it is to a live event like an awards show or a sporting event. The network can't say "We want this awards show to be held at 10 p.m. Pacific in the event that someone might say the 'F-word'." They can opt not to show it live, but would the event organizers accept that or indeed would the audience watch it when they could just as easily find out the winners by watching a news show or going online? Finally there is the declaration that the FCC order "is from an agency with long experience in the area being regulated." That is indeed true, but it is also true that this is scarcely the first time that a situation like this has come up. In fact, there is fifty years of precedent up to the point of the FCC ruling and in all that time inadvertent obscenities have essentially been treated as accidental events. What the FCC did in their "declaratory, not punitive" order was to arbitrarily overturn the decisions (or no-decisions) of previous commissions.
Next, let's turn to the PTC's reaction to the motion filed by lawyers for ABC to overturn the FCC fine for the episode of NYPD Blue from February 2003. You will recall that this was a scene that it apparently took the FCC five years to decide was "indecent" despite the fact that the show had been showing bare buttocks – male and female – for most of the previous decade without being fined. The PTC states in their commentary on the ABC lawyers' filing that, "After reading their arguments challenging the FCC's indecency fine against NYPD Blue, we believe ABC's attorneys should win an Emmy for 'Best Comedy Writing.' Their primetime comedy writers haven't written anything nearly as funny in years." It's a catchy line, and the bit about the comedy writers is a double edged sword is hilarious given that the ABC comedy writers (setting aside the fallacy of the network having comedy writers) are the people that gave us Cavemen, Carpoolers and According To Jim. But what the PTC thinks is "hilarious" is legitimate argument. Here's some of what the PTC says:
They argue that they are not opposed to indecency rules, yet they don't want the rules to be enforced. That's akin to saying that they're in favor of the speed limit but against any enforcement when people drive too fast.
They show a fully-naked woman from behind; the camera ogling her up and down with saucy music playing in the background. And in denying that a naked woman's buttocks has either a sexual or excretory function, they say it is 'just a muscle.' Why not just show her bicep, then?
ABC has also made the preposterous assertion that no viewers complained to the FCC about the nudity in NYPD Blue when the reality is that thousands of Americans from all over the country exercised their First Amendment rights to contact their government about the misuse of the airwaves that they own. Many of those concerned citizens used the PTC website to file those complaints with the FCC. The law is clear: people have the right through the FCC to complain about the indecent material airing in their communities regardless of how they are informed about the material. For ABC to declare otherwise is like saying that only those who fight in Iraq or Afghanistan can log a formal opinion about the war.
Of course none of that was what the ABC lawyers said according to Broadcast & Cable. On the first point they actually state that, "the current commission's indecency standard as applied was an unjustified break with precedent, arbitrary and capricious, and just plain wrong. 'Indeed, it is the Commission that has broken faith with Pacifica by disregarding the narrowness of Pacifica's holding and rejecting the restrained enforcement policy Pacifica demanded.'" The PTC's statement that the network, "in denying that a naked woman's buttocks has either a sexual or excretory function, they say it is 'just a muscle.' Why not just show her bicep, then," is far more absurd than what the ABC lawyers actually said. The lawyers, "argued that backsides do not meet the FCC's criteria for indecency because they are not 'sexual or excretory organs.' Rather, they are part of the muscular system." Which is entirely accurate of course; the buttocks themselves are neither sexual nor excretory, they are however an erogenous zone. And indeed the ABC lawyers apparently offered examples – including images of the "Coppertone Girl" – which are indicative (according to the lawyers) that the American public is not offended by the depiction of bare buttocks. The whole concept of "why not just show her bicep" is so absurd as to not being worthy even of the PTC. In the context of the scene – a woman interrupted in the process of her normal day because she isn't used to living with someone with a child – "just" showing her bicep is hardly enough. (As far as the whole "saucy music" and the camera "ogling her up and down" this is clearly the PTC's imagination running wild. The music in particular is a clear continuation of the music in the street scene that precedes the bathroom scene.)
The final part of the PTC's argument also has me shaking my head. The Broadcast & Cable article on the ABC filing doesn't mention that the ABC lawyers made this argument. It is stated in an article on the FMBQ website it is stated that the FOX and NBC filings in support of ABC claimed that, "no actual viewers complained about the episode. 'All of the complaints the FCC received in this case were from complaints drafted by the American Family Association,' which is an activist group, the brief said. Therefore, in the absence of complaints from real viewers, the FCC should not act." The implication is of course that the complaints to the FCC were made not by people who actually watched the episode and were offended by it but rather by those who were told by an organization – whether it was the PTC or the American Family Association – that they should be offended by it even if they didn't see the show except perhaps as a clip on the PTC website. The PTC claims that, "the law is clear: people have the right through the FCC to complain about the indecent material airing in their communities regardless of how they are informed about the material." The thing is though that this is far from being clear. In fact complaints have been rejected, and fines have not been levied against individual stations, in the past because it was clear to the FCC that the complainants didn't actually see the show. The PTC's comparison between the supposed right of those who weren't offended by a show that they didn't see to lodge a formal complaint to a government agency, and the ability to comment about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan despite not having been there is one of the most absurd and borderline disgusting thing in this whole statement.
Well maybe it isn't the most absurd. That would probably go to this little gem: "ABC must believe that corporate namesake, Walt Disney himself, would agree that airing the 'F-word' and showing naked women on television are not indecent. Would the same man who brought the world Mickey Mouse really think that? Surely he would agree with the unanimous, bipartisan FCC ruling that the NYPD Blue episode was indecent." Where does this come from? The PTC is not only putting thoughts into the head of a man who has been dead for 40 years but seems clearly unaware that Walt Disney wanted to include topless women – well topless female centaurs – in Fantasia and was only deterred from doing so by the Motion Picture Production Code. I don't know what Walt Disney would have thought about this scene and neither does the PTC.
We now turn to the PTC patting itself on the back. The PTC seems to be of the opinion that they and they alone are responsible for the cancellation of the FX series Dirt. Why? Well according to the article PTC Efforts Cleaned Up TV's "Dirt" the PTC managed to persuade fifty advertisers to make "the responsible decision to remove their financial support for the offensive content of Dirt via their advertising dollars." To which I say, "prove it." And they can't.
According to PTC president Tim Winter, "If advertising dollars won't support a particular television show, then the network must either edit the show in a way that appeases the advertisers, or else the network must cancel the program entirely. We heard from a number of companies who decided to stop sponsoring the show after being contacted by us. We believe that our efforts clearly had an effect on Dirt being cancelled." So by their own president's statement, it was "a number of companies" rather than fifty. And instead of asserting outright – as the title of the press release does – that the PTC's efforts were responsible for getting the show cancelled, Winter is saying that "our efforts clearly had an effect on 'Dirt' being cancelled." And even that they can't prove. What I can argue is that the show was cancelled for the reason most shows are cancelled – the audience went away. The first season of the show debuted with an audience of 3.7 million and averaged 1.9 million for the entire season. According to the Wikipedia entry for the show, the second – and as it turned out the last – season debuted with an audience of 1.7 million in "a competitive timeslot, Sundays at 10 P.M." but the audience slipped to 1.06 million by the finale of the strike shortened seven episode second season. Is it not possible that this, rather than the lobbying by the PTC, is the more likely reason for advertisers to abandon Dirt rather than the pleas/demands/threats of the PTC?
I don't think I'll look too heavily at this week's Worst of the Week because quite frankly even for the PTC it was a weak choice. The show as a one-time only airing of a Canadian show called MVP which will be airing on SoapNet. The show, which ran for eleven episodes on the CBC before being cancelled for being too expensive and not drawing a large audience even by CBC standards, was a Canadianized version of the British hit Footballers Wives. I won't go through what the PTC says about the show because it's the usual litany of supposed horrors that are supposed to be corrupting the children even though the show was seen in the third hour of primetime – yet another example of the PTC treating all of us as though we were children. But the thing that bothers me is that the PTC is that the PTC gets up in arms about this show because of drug use and sexuality but never ever mentions "daytime dramas" and the sort of things that happen in those shows (drug use, sexuality, even worse) which are far more accessible to child and teenaged viewers than this show was. But of course commenting on daytime dramas (and the syndicated court shows that occupy the time slots that years ago were given over to syndicated reruns and shows for kids) doesn't spark the sort of outrage that commenting on prime time shows does.
Let's turn instead to the show that the PTC has decided was "Misrated". This time around the show is the latest American Film Institute's latest Top Ten List, America's 10 Great Films in 10 Classic Genres. Now I missed this AFI list – a rarity for me I admit but somehow I wasn't aware that it was on. The show was rated TV-PG LV, meaning Parental Guidance, with Language and Violence descriptors. According to the PTC "...although kids also love movies, the special chose to highlight many clips featuring content unsuitable for children. With clips from movies in the categories of animation, fantasy, science fiction, sports, westerns, gangster films, mysteries, epics, courtroom dramas, and romantic comedies, this show had the potential to be as clean or as raunchy as its producers chose. Unfortunately, all too often they chose "raunchy"…and parents were not even warned of the inappropriate content, since the show was rated only TV-PG LV." The PTC points out that there are violent images from "R" rated movies being shown at 7 p.m. Central Time! Among the movies listed were Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Blade Runner, and A Clockwork Orange, with clips from Unforgiven, Wild Bunch, Raging Bull, Scarface, Pulp Fiction, The Godfather Part II, Goodfellas, The Godfather Part I, The Usual Suspects, and Blue Velvet being shown at 8 p.m. Central. According to the PTC, "Clips showed people being shot at, beaten savagely, and murdered. Graphic depictions of blood and wounds were shown. The violence in these clips earned the movies an R-rating in theaters – but apparently CBS thinks such violence is only deserving of a PG rating." And that's not all. They also showed "a clip from When Harry Met Sally shows Sally faking an orgasm in the middle of a restaurant. She yells, moans, and pounds on the table during her false sexual interlude." And in a clip from Bull Durham, "the lead character mentions his belief in 'soft-core pornography.'" Oh the horror! The PTC's conclusion of course is that "Due to the number and graphic nature of the violent clips shown, and the sexual content of other clips, this show should have been rated TV-14 LVS."
Well not so fast. Even assuming that the Motion Picture Association of America (the MPAA) didn't give some of these movies and "R" rating because they contained nude scenes – even a flash of female nudity is often enough to get an "R" rating – the fact is that the clips used in these AFI retrospectives are incredibly brief, a fact that the clip provided by the PTC shows. In particular they cite the clip from A Clockwork Orange: "In a clip from A Clockwork Orange, a gang brutally beats an older man with a cane, kicking and punching him, all while giggling with evil delight." That scene, as portrayed in the clip, takes only slightly longer to run than it takes to read the PTC description. To my mind the clips shown seem to have been brief enough, and the warning that there were Language and Violence concerns (and remember that even the PTC couldn't list scenes where the characters were engaged in the sort of thing that would either get an R rating for a movie) and recommended that Parents (real parents not the "national parents" that the PTC wants to be) should offer guidance to the children that they know better than some umbrella organization. But apparently though, the PTC believes that the clips shown, and hey, maybe even the entire list, should have been crafted to be suitable for children; because after all, "kids also love movies."
Finally let's turn to the PTC's TV Trends piece this week, titled, "Summer Brings Little Fun to Prime Time". It's a diatribe against the bad language, sex and violence that the networks are foisting on the poor innocent TV audience. It is in part a case of "round up the usual suspects." Fox subjected children to Moment of Truth (where a woman "was asked such personally invasive questions as whether she would act in a pornographic movie and whether she has shared details of her current sex life with a former boyfriend") which was followed by Hell's Kitchen which "unleashed a blizzard of f-bombs on impressionable youngsters in the audience." The writer chose to illustrate his point by printing a Ramsayan diatribe which stemmed from him burning his hand on a pot, complete with "(bleeped f***)!" inserted at the appropriate points, and added, "Clearly, Ramsay's culinary brilliance does not extend to his vocabulary; but how many children, hearing this (even in its bleeped form) will gain the impression that such vulgar language is the norm?" The writer then briefly turns his attention to CBS, with an obligatory mention of "its sex-and-drug series Swingtown" (which airs in the third hour of prime time of course) and the previously mentioned AFI special. However, the article's real wrath is directed at NBC.
According to the article, "it was NBC which failed children and families the most in past weeks. NBC should be the best network for families, with its heavy slate of original talent-show programming; but while the programs' premises are excellent, what actually airs contains material some parents would find objectionable." The definition of objectionable seems pretty low as far as I'm concerned. First there are two incidents from Nashville Star. In the first, according to the PTC, one of the judges supposedly implies an improper relationship between a contestant and one of the other judges (singer Jewel) saying, "I don't know if you mentored this kid or you made out with him for thirty minutes." In the second incident, "judge Jeffrey Steele mocked contestant Tommy's choice of song with the repeated words, 'You are such a kiss-ass. I gotta say it again, you are such a kiss-ass…He's kissing your ass.'" Turning to the show Celebrity Circus they mention "inappropriate" language ("when did it become mandatory for every program in prime time to use words like 'damn,' 'hell' and 'ass,' anyway?") but direct their real attention to one of the acts in the show in which Christopher Knight (Peter from the Brady Bunch and more recently My Fair Brady which details his marriage to Adrianne Curry) sets himself on fire. According to the PTC he is goaded by a clown to do this. They detail what the clown tells Knight ("I thought what we'd do, we take a stick of dynamite, light it, hand it to you, you stick it down your pants and blow your crotch out.") and then comments, "While fire-eating clowns are a traditional part of a circus, explosives down the pants are a new wrinkle…and one most parents probably wouldn't appreciate their children seeing." Finally they turn to "the most egregious error on the part of NBC" at least according to the PTC. That would be the debut episode of the third season of America's Got Talent. They object – but not overly strenuously to "a veritable burlesque striptease by the 'Slippery Kittens,'" but their real wrath is directed at Derek Barry, a Britney Spears impersonator, and a comment David Hasselhoff made in connection with his act: "I'm questioning my sexuality here. You're hot! But you're the wrong sex." Noting that the episode was rated TV-14 L, the writer adds this comment: "What a sad commentary it is that NBC is incapable of producing even talent shows and circus programs that are suitable for children to watch."
I am truly shocked and amazed at all this. The comments on the Fox shows – "Fox subjected children to Moment of Truth" and "unleashed a blizzard of f-bombs on impressionable youngsters in the audience" – almost creates the image of children being tied to chairs by their parents and forced to watch these evil programs. I've already dealt with the issue of the AFI show, which leaves us with the NBC shows. And here the writer of this article is really reaching to find something to object to. To them of course, any use of the word "ass" is evil even though most of the rest of us find it relatively innocuous. The comments on the Celebrity Circus and the "stick of dynamite" is absurd (and the writer clearly hasn't attended a real circus in some time if ever) but even worse is the complaint about Hasselhoff's statement about Derek Barry (who incidentally did look hot – far hotter than the real Britney Spears. While I wouldn't call the statement entirely innocuous, I can't help but take it in the spirit in which it was meant, namely as an expression of amazement and even praise for Barry's appearance in character, and I for one am unsure what this writer objects to. Or maybe I do know.
When I type I occasionally (well more than occasionally) make typos. One of those typos suddenly put the PTC into perspective for me. I left the "e" off of "prime." It suddenly became clear: the PTC wants to turn "Prime Time" into "Prim Time." And while I don't think they can do it, they do seem to have the deck stacked in their favour. They are organized and vocal, and the structure of the FCC rewards the organized and vocal. They are interested in protests and complaints and there is no structure in place for those who support a show like NYPD Blue to let them know about it. The PTC makes noise. They complain about shows and organize boycotts of those that advertise on those shows. In doing so they try to create a fear among advertisers so that they shows that are edgy and controversial don't get support. In that way television is moved away from the groundbreaking and towards the safe and formulaic, towards the sort of shows that the PTC wants; towards "Prim Time."