It's been a while since I've done one of these pieces. Part of the problem – or my lack of motivation, I'm not sure which – was that there wasn't much that I considered new and exciting. The PTC files an Amicus Brief on a case even as they criticize others for filing an Amicus Brief that they disagree with? Yawn. The PTC takes credit for something that they had little – no I take that back, nothing – to do with. Same old same old. The PTC gives out one of its awards to a company that it likes and announces the selection of a new board member. Okay, whatever. The PTC tries to use its supposed one million members "who hold a variety of political positions" (and wasn't that written poorly; that suggests that all 1.3 million hold some sort of political office rather than holding political opinions – and I still think the vast majority are Republicans) calling for a focus on TV decency and cable choice. Ho-hum, BORING!
No, for me the big thing has been the absence of really new stuff. The shows that they have been taking a rip over the past couple of months, for the most part, have been reruns. Sometimes in fact they are shows that were previously ripped by the PTC for pretty much the same thing that they're being ripped for this time around. Probably the most blatant example is part of the PTC's vendetta against Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy. Last week the PTC did one of their Worst Shows on TV pieces on the Star Wars satire episode of Family Guy. The interesting thing here was that the PTC stated in their article, "When Fox originally aired the Family Guy's parody episode of Star Wars entitled, "Blue Harvest," it managed to avoid being named Worst TV Show of the Week only by topping our Misrated column. The September 21st rerun at 9:00 p.m. ET, however, did not escape the PTC's scrutiny and has been named Worst TV Show of the Week for being just as raunchy the second time around." They go further than this; from what I can recall of the original Misrated piece (and as usual with the PTC there are no links unless it's something they want to link to) a considerable amount the new review wsa cut and pasted from the original PTC piece. Summer is an off time everyone, including I presume, the PTC.
I've got a couple of good stories on the PTC's efforts to get the FCC to fine networks for perceived violations of decency regulations. I was going to start with the more recent incident first and deal with the event that I am going to talk about now only parenthetically but there are a couple of rather interesting developments on this front that I really want to delve into. According to an article from Ars Technica, "On September 11, host Matt Lauer asked daredevil Hans Lange what his reaction was to crash-parachuting into a mountain wall from thousands of feet in the air. 'I was pretty angry with myself,' Lange replied. 'I was like... wahhhh! Holy shit!'" The offending word was removed from tape delayed versions of the episode that aired outside the Eastern Time Zone. Despite this fact the PTC was predictably incensed. In a press release dated the same day as the incident, PTC president Tim Winter slammed NBC for "its arrogance in choosing not to bleep this profanity, and for its arrogance in choosing not to apologize to its viewers, many of whom included children. NBC continues to show a clear pattern of contempt for the broadcast decency law by airing yet another unbleeped profanity on its morning show. The PTC is filing an indecency complaint and is urging its members to speak out about NBC's utter disregard for decency over the public airwaves." They further said, "NBC could have prevented the 's-word' from being aired by using a 5-second delay, but it clearly didn't want to. NBC obviously thought that the 's-word' was inappropriate to air since it scrubbed the word from broadcasts to the Central, Mountain and Pacific Time zones. So why then does NBC believe they can sweep this under the rug for those families in the Eastern Time zone?" They concluded by saying, "The public is entitled to the expectation that television is not going to assault their families during certain times of day and NBC violated that expectation again. We hope viewers speak out about this and we hope the network is held accountable." There was then the usual link to an email form letter for people in the Eastern Time Zone to use to protest the obscenity – without actually requiring the people who were "offended" to have been watching the offensive incident. It was standard PTC stuff right down to rousing the masses to arms regardless of whether or not they had a right to feel offended because they didn't see the actual event, although it was enough for Ars Technica to email "a representative of the PTC asking whether it was appropriate to encourage people who may not have viewed the program to file complaints about it. We also asked how this Today Show episode harms TV watchers, especially those who did not see the interview." Needless to say they received no reply.
The Ars Technica article did include some interesting tidbits which to my mind casts a pall on the whole decision-making process at the FCC. And no, it was not the New York Times editorial board coming out in favour of the Second Circuit Court decision that is under review by the Supreme Court, saying that the FCC policy, "...seriously infringes on free speech." No, the most interesting aspect is a statement for Michael Powell who was one of the commission members who voted for the new policy! Powell, the son of General Colin Powell, and currently John McCain's top technology adviser was an and FCC Commissioner from November 1997 until January 2001 and Chairman of the FCC from January, 2001 until January, 2005. According to a second Ars Technica story, in a wide ranging criticism of the FCC at the National Press Club event that was part of George Mason University's Information Economy Project on September 16th, Powell stated that the decision on the event that provoked the current wave of indecency prosecutions – Bono's appearance at the Golden Globes – was "a terrible mistake and I voted for it." Going beyond that Powell, who generally holds libertarian views with regards to censorship, stated that the FCC's regulation of broadcast decency has "gone way too far—we are dancing with the limits of the Constitution." According to the Ars Technica article, "If Bono's exclamation was 'indecent,' Powell opined, then the agency had in effect adopted a strict-liability rule, leaving 'no rational principle' for distinguishing 'indecent' from innocent expletives, with the result that enforcement 'becomes terribly political.'" Part of the problem lies with the lack of court opinions on the matter of broadcast decency since the Pacifica Case, despite significant changes in technogy. For Powell however the major point was theso-called "pervasive" nature of broadcast TV. According to Powell, "My kids have no idea what a 'broadcast channel' is. The idea that the First Amendment changes as you go up the dial is silly." He further stated that "the outrage and pressure the FCC faced in the Bono case, and later in the wake of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl 'wardrobe malfunction,' proved that parents themselves were more than capable of penalizing broadcasters who aired inappropriate content during family programming."
Also present at the event was Powell's immediate predecessor as FCC Chairman William Kennard, who served from 1997 to 2001. Although he didn't speak directly to the question of the case before the Supreme Court, he did offer some sense as to at least some of the reasons behind it. According to Kennard a great deal of the problems the FCC faces today stem from the politicization of appointments to the agency dating from a deal that President Clinton made with Senator Trent Lott to allow Republicans to make appointments to boards. According to Kennard, the result is that the agency is becoming demoralized, with political appointees treating the agency's career staff as, "'cannon fodder'—servants to be worked to the bone at best, and at worst, potential troublemakers with their own agendas." It was the professional staff of the FCC who pushed to maintain the status quo (no action on isolated use of profanities – the so-called "fleeting expletive"), and the appointed board members who caved in to pressure who created the current situation, previously described by former FCC heads Newton Minnow and Mark Fowler as "a rallying cry for a revival of Nineteenth Century Comstockery." Ars Technica summed up Kennard's position on the current direction of the FCC by noting that, "Decision-making has become more predictable...as the views of commissioners now tend to reflect those of their patrons on Capitol Hill. As a result, policy-making had also become more contentious and partisan."
I suppose we should turn now to the absurd. On September 30th, the PTC released a press release demanding that their 1.3 million members inundate the FCC with complaints about nudity on the CBS series Survivor. In typically hysterical PTC rhetoric the organization claimed that it was all part of a nefarious plot on the part of CBS: "Unsatisfied with the growing volume of indecent material on live broadcasts, CBS has once again decided to violate the public trust, this time by including an unedited shot of a penis on Survivor. Although this instance was brief, it was nonetheless shocking and purposeful. Unfortunately, with the number of people inside the network reviewing every frame of video, CBS knew full well of this nudity and elected to include it anyway." The event occurred on the show's second episode which was broadcast as part of the two hour Survivor premiere event on September 25th. The first reports of the reports of the appearance of the portion of the portion of the male anatomy in question surfaced a day or two after the episode, around September 27th. It wasn't much of an appearance in either sense of the word – we aren't talking Ron Jeremy or Milton Berle here kiddies – since the penis popped in and out of the boxer shorts of contestant Marcus Lehman for less time than Janet Jackson's nipple was exposed, and it wasn't as immediately obvious that it was the head of a penis as it was that we were seeing Janet Jackson's nipple.
Now here's the sort of interesting (but not very) part. I didn't see it. I watched the show and I didn't see it. Jackie Schnoop, who recaps Survivor for TVSquad as well as her own blog watched the show a lot closer than I did and didn't see it. Hal Boedeker, TV critic of the Orlando Sun watched the episode pretty closely and he didn't see it. More to the point, if we are to believe a CBS statement that is included in Boedeker's article, the editors at CBS and Mark Burnett's production company didn't see it either. Here's the CBS statement: "This was a completely unintentional, inadvertent and fleeting incident that was virtually undetectable when viewed in real time. In the first 24 hours after the broadcast, before freeze-frame images were widely posted online, we received one viewer comment from the 13 million who watched the telecast."
And you know what? I don't think that anyone at the PTC saw it either! Yeah, that's right I think that they missed it too. Look at the time line. The episode aired on September 25th. If the image of Lehman's wee-wee was so offensive and blatant you would expected them to launch an immediate demand for CBS's license the way they did over the Hans Lange incident, but it was all quiet on the PTC front. After Googling "Survivor + penis" the first reference (NSFW) I was able to find was dated September 27th. That reference included both still photos and a slow motion (in other words not real time) video clip of the incident (and as I said, NSFW) in a continuous loop. So in other words it took the PTC five days to get outraged by this incident which was supposedly irreparably scarring to every young person who saw the show. Nevertheless the PTC feels empowered to demand an apology from CBS and "as outlined in the FCC consent decree, to take immediate steps to identify who edited the scene into the broadcast and hold that person or those people accountable." Ah well, at least this penis – uh – flap delivered a memorable quote: "CBS's decision to hide behind excuses that the incident was 'fleeting' and didn't generate an immediate flood of complaints is the epitome of irresponsibly [sic]. The number of 'fleeting' penises we expect to see on broadcast television is zero."
Turning from the ridiculous to the merely moronic, it's time to look at the PTC's Worst Show of The Week. The current one is the FOX series Bones. According to the PTC, the October 1st episode of the show is the worst of the week because of "excessive gore and implied violence." The scene (one scene!) that earned the show this accolade was described in detail more graphic than you'd actually see on the episode by the PTC as follows: "The October 1st episode began with office workers riding an elevator up a metropolitan high rise. As the elevator car rattles violently, a dismembered, decomposed leg wearing fashionable black pumps falls from overhead. Later, forensic anthropologist, Dr. Temperance 'Bones' Brennan, and her colleague, Dr. Camille Saroyan, inspect the elevator shaft. The camera lingers on hunks of tissue plastered on the wall. 'I'm gonna need a spatula to scrape off all the flesh and the organs,' Dr. Saroyan announces dryly. Dr. Brennan replies, 'The bones are in hundreds of pieces. I want them bagged.' Putrid blood and liquid fester around a severed hand resting on top of the car. The doctors turn their flashlights upward and illuminate the dead woman's remains smeared along the length of the elevator shaft." Having watched the episode (I confess that I'm a confirmed fan of Bones – and many of the other forensic series, but like NCIS, Bones has a personality and a sense of humour that the CSI franchise shows lack – at least intentionally), I have to tell you that that is written in a way that makes it sound a lot worse than it was. And even the PTC admits, "Admittedly, the rest of the show is relatively tame, but it should be noted that the series' goriest material consistently airs at the beginning of the (nonexistent – BM) Family Hour." In other words the PTC objects to the discovery of the bodies. And as the PTC points out, "Unfortunately, parents have little recourse if they wish their children to avoid such scenes while channel surfing." Well except for, you know, changing the channel, turning the TV off, knowing enough not to turn to FOX if the object to the program, setting up the V-Chip to block shows like that. Yeah, parents have virtually no recourse at all in this situation.
But of course the PTC uses this to promote the "bigger issue" – violence on TV. According to the PTC, "Over the years, crime procedurals have contributed to the nearly 100,000 acts of violence that children watch before the age of 18. The consensus within the scientific community affirms that there is a relationship between children who watch violent programming and their aggressive behavior in later life. There is also evidence that watching such programming leads to desensitization towards violence and fear of becoming a victim among child viewers. This past spring, the FCC urged lawmakers to consider regulations that would restrict violent programs to late-evening hours, when fewer children watch television." Of course they don't bother to tell us over how many years the phrase "over the years" means, or whether all of those "100,000 acts of violence that children watch before the age of 18" occurred during the times when children are most likely to be watching TV – the first two hours of prime time. Unsurprisingly (since it is the favoured bastion of the Social Conservative) they echo the current leadership of the FCC in demanding more restrict when violent acts can be seen and the power to levy fines – and of course what constitutes a finable "event" will be left up to the FCC to define. Because that has worked so well with language and nudity.
The PTC doesn't offer a way to check previous Worst Show on Cable in the same way that they do with the worst show on Broadcast TV. Currently the worst show on Cable is an episode of South Park although the current link on the PTC website says that the show is It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Neither of these is a surprise of course but a couple of weeks ago the show was the BBC America series Skins which originally appeared on the British network Channel 4. The description on the IMDB page for the shows says, "The story of a group of British teens who are trying to grow up and find love and happiness despite questionable parenting and teachers who more want to be friends (and lovers) rather than authority figures." And that of course is exactly what the PTC objected too. I'm not going to go into their points item by item – mainly because I can't find them. Rather I bring this up because it illustrates the "throw out the baby with the bathwater" problem that is central to the PTC's demands for "cable choice." The PTC would have their members demand that they "not be forced to subsidize" shows that they object to and be able to cancel their subscription to channels that show them. But here is a show that is on a channel which the PTC doesn't ordinarily object to and by most objective standards airs a lot more good material than objectionable. More to the point they air a great many shows that are of high quality by any measure. Are cable subscribers supposed to forego the good programming On BBC America and other networks because they object to the (PTC defined) "bad shows?" Or perhaps the PTC would like to extend cable choice to its ultimate end point where viewers can pick and choose which individual programs they will "subsidize." And here I thought that this is hwy we have advertisers and ratings.
Okay, a quick visit to PTC's Misrated column, even though it's been left unchanged for a few weeks. The show – predictably enough – is Gossip Girl and the PTC article contains a couple of absurd bits of supposition and one outright fabrication in its demand that the show, which was rated TV-14 DL, have an "S" descriptor attached. Here's what the PTC objects to (with my snarky comments in parentheses). "The show opened with Serena and Dan waking up on the beach, apparently having "hooked up" the previous night, with Serena clad only in a bra. (Prove it. Short of seeing Serena bottomless – which would provoke other demands from the PTC – they can't.) Later, on a bus back from the Hamptons to Manhattan, Serena pulls Dan into the bus bathroom, kissing him passionately and presumably proceeding to other sexual activities. (Again, prove it. Oh wait, they said "presumably" which means that they aren't dealing with fact – or even what passes for it among the PTC and their acolytes – but with innuendo and smutty minds.)" But here's the real clanger: "The end of the episode, however, brings the truly appalling scene: Blair looks for her new boyfriend's stepmother Catherine. Blair finds Catherine and teenager Nate on the floor, among discarded items of clothing. Catherine's legs are wrapped around Nate's body and they move against one anther [sic] as they kiss. As Catherine is about 40 years old and Nate is about to begin his senior year of high school, the (mostly teen) audience is exposed to a scene of statutory rape." Uh no. The last time I checked, most high school seniors have passed their 17th birthday. The show is set in New York City and – I checked this myself – the age of consent in New York states is 17. In Canada and much of the United States the age of consent is 16. So by any definition of statutory rape, Nate and Catherine are not guilty. As far as the scene itself, it's on the PTC's website. I watched it and if that's the worst the PTC can come up with all I can say is that they've obviously come up with a new way to define sex. We see a lot of Catherine's legs (at least I presume they're Catherine's) but everyone seems to have all the necessary clothing – Nate's pants are on and he's still wearing his T-shirt (though admittedly it's pulled up to his shoulders), and Catherine's breasts seem to be covered enough. In short they ain't doing it yet. Maybe this scene qualifies as "moderate sexual activity" which is the standard for the "S" descriptor in a TV-14 show but it seems pretty mild compared with some of the shows that are also rated TV-14 and also don't have the descriptor.
Finally, let's turn to a fellow traveller on this pseudo-crusade of mine against the PTC and their fellow travellers. I first found the link to this article by TVWeek's Joe Adalian thanks to the Creative Voices in Media blog and let's just say that it says all of the things that I've said and feel about the PTC. Adalian's basic point is that while the PTC claims that it does what it does as an organization "Because our children are watching," (the motto on the masthead of their website) the fact is, according to Adalian, "the PTC's actions and words too often have indicated that its real mission includes pushing for government-sanctioned censorship of the media and the elimination of any and all programming that conflicts with its far-right social and political philosophies. What's more, rather than working with networks to figure out ways to increase family-friendly programming and offer true protection to children, the PTC is obsessed with denouncing shows clearly aimed at adult audiences. The PTC doesn't want to make TV safe for kids. It wants to make it safe only for those shows that fit into its narrowly constructed worldview of what constitutes acceptable TV." Adalian cites a number of examples of the PTC condemning shows that may or may not be intended for audiences that include children. Most notable of these was the PTC demands that local CBS affiliates pre-empt the series Swingtown because it "undermines the institutions of marriage and family." Says Adalian: "It doesn't matter that "Swingtown" contained no obscene language or nudity. The fact that CBS aired the show at 10 p.m. in most of the country is irrelevant. Adult viewers simply shouldn't be able to watch this show, period, according to the cultural crusaders of the PTC." He notes that Fringe was named worst show of the week once for "because of an opening scene involving some flesh-melting" (deemed violent by the PTC, "icky" by Adalian, and derivative by those of us who saw Raiders of the Lost Ark during its theatrical first run). Another show named worst of the week was a tribute to American troops called America United, condemned because it "contained some randy humor, an appearance by a scantily clad Pamela Anderson and a performance by Snoop Dogg." (Just how "scantily clad" Pam Anderson was is a matter for debate; every frontal shot of her was covered by a superimposed phone number to call – we don't know if she was showing something she shouldn't, if someone at ABC decided not to take the chance that she might be showing something she shouldn't, or if ABC just didn't want to run the risk that someone at the PTC would protest because the thought she was showing something she shouldn't.)
But for Adalian, as for me, it is the hypocrisy of the PTC's aims that are difficult to deal with: "What's most irksome -- and dangerous -- about the PTC is the way it uses children as human shields to hide its real agenda. There's nothing wrong with any person or group declaring their disgust with what's on the small screen. It's part of what I do for a living, after all. But the PTC is being morally and intellectually dishonest by pretending that it's simply trying to protect kids. How are children helped when the PTC spends so much of its time railing against shows that clearly aren't intended for their eyes? How are America's families strengthened by an organization that wastes its time ginning up bogus outrage over a half-second shot of a penis on "Survivor" that could only be seen by viewers watching in HD and using the freeze-frame function of their DVRs? If the PTC really cared about kids, they'd spend as much time coaching parents on how new technologies can help them monitor their kids' viewing as they do trying to censor networks. Instead, the PTC regularly twists the technicalities of decades-old obscenity regulations to force networks to spend millions defending programming that is very clearly not obscene." But of course coaching parents on how "new technologies can help them monitor their kids' viewing" is exactly the opposite of what the PTC wants to do. We seen in every one of those "Misrated" columns that I've sited over the years that the PTC is in the business of convincing parents advertisers and probably the FCC itself that those new technologies don't work – don't protect kids from smut and violence and "icky" things – because the networks habitually and deliberately underrate their shows for reasons which I confess I don't understand at all. Could it be ....Satan?!
For Joe Adalian, and for myself, it is far easier to see sinister intent in the action of the PTC than it is in the broadcasters. Adalian points this out when he examines the PTC current obsession with cable TV and their demands for 'cable choice:' "In recent years, the organization has even started challenging cable, doing all it can to defame shows with even an ounce of edge. PTC founder L. Brent Bozell last month launched a verbal broadside against FX and its president, John Landgraf, because Mr. Bozell thought the network's Sons of Anarchy represented the 'gruesome unfolding of a pervert's mind onto a national television screen.' He denounced FX for being more concerned about artistic vision than the 'prospect of a 10-year-old boy finding a terrifying castration scene as he's flipping channels in his home.' Personally, I'd be more troubled by the irresponsibility of the parents of any 10-year-old who would allow their son to be channel surfing, unattended, at 10 o'clock at night. There's a reason Mr. Bozell and the folks at the PTC have broadened their attacks beyond broadcasters. They want Congress to require cable operators to offer channels on an a la carte basis. Their argument: Consumers shouldn't have to subsidize "filth" on channels they don't like. The problem, of course, is that a la carte would mean the death of numerous cable channels, and a severe restriction in programming budgets for those that survived. There would be far less choice for consumers, and far fewer outlets producing cutting-edge fare such as Sons of Anarchy." Of course by describing Sons of Anarchy as being cutting edge or having any artistic merit at all, the PTC would accuse Joe Adalian of being a typical elitist TV critic (or rather non-critic) who are, as a PTC writer put it, "heaping praise on the most extreme examples of graphic and gratuitous gore, sex and profanity.... [who] rather than responding to the obvious wishes and desires of their readers, persist in celebrating only the most disturbing programs on TV. And despite the fact that such critics work for outlets across the country, they share a nearly identical mind-set…one which rarely agrees with that of the viewers and readers in their local area."
In his summation Joe Adalian reiterates the point "It's not cable choice the PTC and its allies want. It's not even to shield kids from smut. It's control of what you get to watch." Or, as I've put it occasionally, if the PTC is indeed intent on "protecting the children" they must regard all Americans as children to be protecte, from what the PTC as parents considers "bad."