Friday, August 15, 2008

Who Does The PTC Hate This Week – August 15, 2008

I have been neglecting my self-appointed duty to tell you what the Parents Television Council finds objectionable. Perhaps that's partly because the PTC hasn't exactly been overly active of late. However a few things have cropped up over the past few days that I thought were worth mentioning. And unfortunately, to tell part of this story with full accuracy I am going to have to use a fleeting obscenity; a word that has appeared in this blog before, usually in connection with the PTC.

The first of these is a PTC press release expressing their outrage about something that happened on the August 5th episode of Big Brother. According to the PTC, "During last night's broadcast, a woman named Libra was arguing with a man and said: 'Memphis was in the f***ing room!'" I'm shocked to have to say that on this one, the PTC was right – Libra did say "fucking" when she was arguing with Jesse. But here's the other thing though, I watch Big Brother including that particular episode and I don't remember her saying it. And I'm not the only one. In his August 6th Programming Insider podcast Mark Berman's guest mentions that the PTC was protesting the use of "the word" and Berman was amazed, because he didn't hear it either. So, in an effort to discover whether she did or she didn't I asked the question at Jackie Schnoop's The (TV) Show Must Go On blog (the place to stop for Big Brother discussion). I got a reply from "Clementine" who pointed me to the appropriate clip of the show on YouTube (unfortunately the clip can't be embedded). The incident took place at around the ten minute mark of the clip. And sure enough, Libra does say "fucking." Just one thing though; I had to listen to the clip six or seven times before I could actually tell what she was saying. Now admittedly, I've been having some temporary hearing problems over the past little while, but even so it normally doesn't take me that long to pick out that word (and believe me I hear it often enough). What I think happened is that whoever was handling the editing at CBS simply missed the word – believed it was unintelligable. Why do I think so? Simply because the Big Brother Houseguests use the word "fucking" often and it has always been censored in the past. Indeed it was censored on numerous other occasions, so why let this one through unless the editor in question simply didn't hear the word. In other words, it wasn't even a simple case of human error but rather a case where someone was genuinely unable to determine what was being said.

Of course, that's not the way the PTC sees it. In their press release, which includes a link to a prepared form email that's all ready to be sent to the FCC, PTC President Tim Winter writes the following: "There is absolutely no justification for allowing an 'F-word' like this to air unedited on prime time broadcast television. There can be no question that this was an intentional act on the part of the network; someone actually had to edit the scene with the word into the show. Just this past November, CBS hypocritically entered into yet another consent decree with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) promising not to air indecent material. But apparently, CBS will break its own formal promise – again. Last time it was to air a teen orgy; this time it is for the opportunity to air the 'F-word.' CBS' behavior is a direct result of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on so-called fleeting profanity – a case that will be heard by the Supreme Court this fall. But let me be clear: Unlike the facts of that legal challenge, this was no live broadcast. It was an intentional airing of pre-packaged program that contained obscene language. The network's reprehensible decision to air it cannot go without consequence."

Well let's look at this in a couple of different ways. First, let's look at why the word aired. As I've said, there is a plausible explanation of how the how the word might have slipped by, namely that the person editing the episode either did not hear the word or misheard the word either as something else or couldn't be sure of the word that Libra said; in other words the word was unintelligible to him. The other aspect to consider though is Mr. Winter's interpretation of the 2nd Circuit's ruling on fleeting profanity – not "so-called fleeting profanity" but actual fleeting profanity as defined by the FCC itself before the current administration. His interpretation of the ruling was that it only applies to live events. In his majority opinion on the Pacifica case (which the PTC is so fond of quoting), Justice Stevens wrote, "This case does not involve a two-way radio conversation between a cab driver and a dispatcher, or a telecast of an Elizabethan comedy. We have not decided that an occasional expletive in either setting would justify any sanction or, indeed, that this broadcast would justify a criminal prosecution." In the case of an Elizabethan comedy of course one would be dealing with scripted, and one would presume previously recorded, material. Even in 1978, Stevens recognised that not all uses of expletives in pre-recorded programming would be actionable.

Worth noting at this point is a recent Amicus Brief submitted in the FCC appeal of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling to Supreme Court. The brief, was submitted by a number of former officials of the FCC including former chairmen Newton Minnow, Mark Fowler, and former acting chairman and longest serving appointee to the Commission James Quello. Quello was a commissioner at the time of the Pacifica case. In the Amicus Brief, the former FCC officials stated that "... we have been dismayed by a series of recent [FCC] decisions that have transformed a hitherto moderate policy of policing only the most extreme cases of indecent broadcast programming into a campaign of regulatory surveillance that will chill the production of all but the blandest of broadcast programming." Likening the current FCC's enforcement program to "a Victorian crusade" they stated that "To effectuate its new clean-up-the-airwaves policy, the Commission has radically expanded the definition of indecency beyond its original conception; magnified the penalties for even minor, ephemeral images or objectionable language; and targeted respected television programs, movies, and even noncommercial documentaries." While one would hardly describe Big Brother as a "respected television program" there could hardly be a better definition of "minor, ephemeral...objectionable language" than the incident in the episode of Big Brother.

(Actually the former commissioners went further than just calling on the Supreme Court to uphold the 2nd Circuit Court ruling. According to Broadcast & Cable the Brief calls on the Court to remove the FCC from the business of regulating content. According to the article, "They said the court's work would be incomplete if it simply struck down the 'fleeting expletives' policy, arguing that the FCC's indecency calls in cases of nudity and nonfleeting profanity were inconsistent and that the commission was using 'context' as a 'talisman to ward off serious questions about the extreme subjectivity of the agency's determinations.'" They also argued that the basis of the original Pacifica decision – the uniquely pervasive nature of the broadcast medium – had ceased to exist in the era of the Internet and multi-channel video (by which I assume they mean cable TV). "It is time for the Court to bring its views of the electronic media into alignment with contemporary technological and social reality. As former regulators, we appreciate that the FCC is in an uncomfortable position, buffeted by the turbulent passions of anxious parents and threats from excited congressmen. But that is precisely why the matter must be taken out of the agency's hands entirely." Needless to say, the PTC is not pleased by the Brief.)

Of course you don't actually have to say or be seen to say bad words to arouse the ire of the PTC – not if you're Big Brother anyway. The series was described as "Misrated." This was before the August 5th incident although that incident (which I still contend was an accident – they do happen you know no matter what the PTC thinks) although it did rate a mention – in boldface type no less – in the article. No, what the PTC objected to was words that you couldn't hear uttered by lips that you couldn't see. They claimed that the episode of July 31st should have been rated TV-14L and state that there was no rating applied to the episode at all, something that I find extremely hard to believe. Anyway, here's what they have to say: "The episode's opening recap featured a shouting match between Jerry and Memphis. The latter was upset over Jerry attacking his character. 'You calling me a ______ (bleeped, blurred f***ing) womanizer?' Memphis asks. 'You wanna see me get ______ (bleeped, blurred f***ing) real? I'll get really real, old man!' Memphis' outburst was shown several times, each with another f-bomb. 'Are you out of your mind, old man?' Memphis shouts, 'Are you _____ (bleeped, blurred f***ing) out of your mind?' Later in the episode, Jerry strikes back at the four contestants who have ganged up on him. 'You think I'm going to kiss your ass? You guys _____ (bleeped, blurred f***) me, I'm gonna kiss your ass?...You come and jump on me with your friends. Four of you. Four of you on my ass. You want? All four, come on! Let's go and get it on. ____ (bleeped, blurred F***) ya!'" Now remember, you can't hear the word "fuck" and its variants, and a lip-reader couldn't pick up on it either because you can't see the people's lips (and they did a really good job of completely obliterating the lips). And yet here's what the PTC has to say: "Given the frequency and severity of the swearing, the show should have been rated TV-14 L." By the PTC "standards", the show clearly wasn't censored enough even though – as even they state you couldn't hear or see the words in question – so one has to ask, where exactly does it stop?

Swingtown yet again earns the "accolade" of worst show of the week. I won't go into detail on what the PTC states – since I don't watch the show I'm really not in a position to judge or to entirely contradict what the PTC position – however based entirely on what the PTC says and what the series producer has claimed about the show, the episode that the PTC is complaining about is concerned with the consequences of the protagonists' actions. The consequences of these actions include jealousy and the weakening of the familial bonds. And these are consequences that the characters are aware of. The PTC summarizes a scene between a father and his teenage daughter by saying: "Bruce attempts to scold Laurie for being involved with her older teacher, but when Laurie shoots back with 'What about what you two were doing?' Bruce realizes he and Susan have no moral ground to stand on. Bruce muses, 'No wonder our kids are off the rails. The buck stops here. We are taking back control of this family.'" The PTC ignores this business of consequences of course. Instead, in their conclusion they write, "By airing content intended for premium cable channels on network television, CBS has subjected families to topics that only adult couples should be discussing. And like so much of TV today, by suggesting that monogamy is stifling and, therefore, unhealthy, the show fails to promote positive exploration of sexuality within the confines of marriage." And yet surely scenes like the one they themselves quote are indicative that even the characters of the show are coming to realize that the lifestyle they've adopted is the unhealthy one rather than monogamy. But surely the most absurd thing is the assertion that, "by airing content intended for premium cable channels on network television, CBS has subjected families to topics that only adult couples should be discussing." They seem to be taking the truly absurd position that premium channels like Showtime and HBO are only subscribed to by families without children. Premium channels are available to all who are willing to pay for them... including families with children.

The PTC has been running their TV Trends column dutifully each week while I haven't been writing about them, but quite frankly their weekly Jeremiads have been the typical reactionary stuff we've come to expect from the author of these "think pieces." In the July 17th column, for example, he expressed the opinion that supposedly child-friendly shows were dens of filth and inappropriate language. Proof? Hugh Hefner and his three Girl Next Door girlfriends were on Celebrity Family Feud against some actors from The Sopranos including Vincent Pastore ("Big Pussy" Bonpensiero.) and Hefner said "I think [the girls] are going to do very well against Big Pussy." Smutty double entendre of course – at least in the PTC's view. And there was "Busty Heart" crushing beer cans with her boobs on America's Got Talent (I'd be more upset that kids would try to imitate the sword swallower myself), and a singer supposedly singing "I Kissed A Girl" which supposedly were an "explicit endorsement of drunkenness and promiscuity." You can tell it was bad because they underlined it and put it in italics. If they could have bold-faced it without being to obvious you can bet they'd have done it. In the July 25th column the writer goes on and on about TV's fixation with breasts. The writer states, "It is pathetic that a medium with the tremendous power which television possesses is willing to objectify one-half of the human race; but increasingly, remarks about breasts, scenes emphasizing breasts and even entire storylines about breasts are becoming commonplace on TV. Such a focus ignores intelligence, personality, charm, integrity and the entire host of human qualities, and essentially reduces women to objects valued only for their anatomy." Of course that doesn't stop the writer from going into exacting prurient detail about every specific incident, making sure to mention "the formerly clean" My Name Is Earl (which was also mentioned in the July 17th column as the "increasingly raunchy" My Name Is Earl). In the current column, the writer is practically gloating over the failure of Swingtown in the ratings symbolized by the network decision to move the show to the Friday at 10 p.m. timeslot – "a day and time widely regarded within the entertainment industry as the Place Where Series Go To Die" (an assessment that ignores CBS's general success on that night, a success so great that CBS has been able to cancel shows that have won their time slot in the past two seasons: Close To Home and Moonlight) – and trumpets the decisions of major advertisers not to put commercials on the show. But yet again the writer lovingly delineates, in detail more graphic than anything actually seen on screen, the evil sexual misdeeds depicted on the show, and thoroughly doesn't get the nuances of the show, which as one of the writers pointed out included the fact that these people's actions have consequences that they don't foresee; not necessarily punishment but definitely consequences. But of course acknowledging that the show doesn't actually send "the messages Swingtown is sending to young viewers: marriage vows are meaningless; teachers kissing students is acceptable; and any kind of sex, with any number of people, has no consequences whatsoever." Nuance is lost on the PTC.

Finally (well not finally; there's a rather absurd study presented by the PTC on how TV is devaluing marital sex and emphasising premarital sex, extra-marital affairs, and perverted practices – of course being the PTC the methodology is incomprehensible and the study doesn't consider or worry about either context of nuance) we have the return of The Worst Show on Cable. For months, literally, the PTC was stuck calling a particular episode of Nip/Tuck the worst show on cable. Now they've gotten outraged by the latest episode of Saving Grace. Why? Well there's a "bigger picture" thing going on here which we'll get to but to illustrate the "big picture" badness they have to illustrate it with a specific incident. In this case it is a sex play scene in which Grace and her lover play with food. Of course the PTC lovingly describes the scene in explicit detail:

The episode opened with a shot of Ham's naked rear-end as he and Grace wake up on her living room floor, presumably after a night of drunken lovemaking. Grace tries to rouse Ham by smacking his buttocks, to which he mumbles, "Much harder." Grace obliges by licking a dirty fork clean and jabbing him with it. The couple then migrate to the kitchen, where Ham tells Grace that he has left his wife. Clearly upset, the commitment-phobic Grace sprays Ham with ketchup. Not to be outdone, Ham grabs Grace and shoves ice cubes down her panties. Grace responds by emptying a bottle of mustard on his chest. Clearly aroused, Grace straddles Ham, licks the condiments off of his body, and proclaims, "You taste like a corndog." Grace is then seen kneeling in front of Ham, licking the mustard and ketchup mixture off his abdomen. Ham reaches into the refrigerator and dumps milk all over her head. The couple finally collapse to the kitchen floor and began having sex. All of this occurred before the opening credits.

Now here's the big picture, in the words of the PTC itself: "Touted as a redemptive series chronicling a troubled female detective's struggle against her personal demons, the show's underlying positive themes are often undercut by over-the-top depictions of sex and drug use." So basically what the PTC is saying is that the eventual redemption of Grace Hanadarko's character is a "good" thing – a positive theme as they put it – but that theme is hurt by showing her the drug use, the alcohol abuse and the irresponsible sexual activities that are why she needs redemption. The thing is though, that if you simply say that Grace's activities are bad it doesn't have the impact of showing it. It's a standard dramatic maxim "show it, don't say it." But the PTC says "don't show it and don't even go into details in saying it." But of course it is perfectly alright for the PTC to show it – describe scenes in exquisite detail, and at least in the past show video clips of "bad" scenes from cable shows – rather than simply saying it – telling us that the show has explicit sex scenes and scenes of drug use. Anything is acceptable in their cause, the demand for cable choice. Cable choice is something that I agree with in principle but am realistic enough to understand that until every cable user has to use a specialized set-top box like the digital box I have on my TV. But even if you have cable choice available on your cable system, the fact that not every program on the cable channel represents "objectionable content." Do you throw out all of the "good" because of a little bit of the "bad?" (And by the way this description of "good" and "bad" is theirs not mine. Having seen several episodes of Saving Grace, my opinion is that the show is one of the better things on television, showing the complexities of a woman who seeks to escape the traumas in her life in a miasma of sensation – drugs, alcohol, and sex. The major question for me is not why she needs redemption but rather why God, through the mechanism of the angel Earl, has chosen to try to offer Grace the option of redemption. But then again I don't see things from the same obsessed single-minded perspective that the PTC adopts.)

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