Thursday, November 13, 2008

Who Does The PTC Hate THIS Week – November 13, 2008

What I thought was going to be a short one this time around for a couple of reasons. First, I spent Friday and Saturday getting my brother mostly moved out of my house and into his new (to him) home. And in typical Greg fashion, this meant loading and unloading a trailer late into the evening (the last load on Friday went out of here at 10 at night – you try loading a trailer from a garage with no lights into a trailer which obviously had no internal lights at that time of night). And also typically, in Greg's view I am totally incapable of doing even the simplest chores correctly. Oh well, at least I can reclaim the use of the HDTV and the PVR on a more regular basis than I could when he was around and watching what he wanted – usually whatever sports were in season.

The second reason why this is short – well okay, shorter – is because there seems to be something wrong with the links at the PTC's website, which affects one article and the video clips. Clicking on the link to the article CBS Breaks Its Decency Pledge: Part 2 of 2 gets an error message: "Microsoft VBScript compilation error '800a0409'." Clicking on the video links in the articles on Gossip Girl and Skins gets this message: "Directory Listing Denied This Virtual Directory does not allow contents to be listed." Clearly someone at the PTC isn't doing their coding properly. Now admittedly I think I can probably guess why the PTC thinks that CBS has broken its "Decency Pledge" – the words "F-word" on Big Brother, "fleeting penis" on Survivor, "lap dance" on Two And A Half Men, "consent decree" and probably "Supreme Court" will be prominent – but not actually being able to see this article to be able to ridicule it is probably the biggest loss in this. The video clips are a lesser loss – particularly the Gossip Girl clip, since this is American broadcast network TV after all – but at least in the case of Skins I'd like to see just how much there is that anyone outside the PTC would object to. Oh well, as the song says, "We'll have to muddle through somehow." Meanwhile, to the unpaid PTC intern who reads blogs for mentions of the organization a message: will you please tell your IT guys to be more careful in coding from now on!

Taking a slightly different approach than I have in most of these PTC posts I'm going to start with the Worst Broadcast Show Of The Week. It's Gossip Girl again, and for a reason that I inevitably find a bit perplexing. They start off by looking at the show's self-promotion as a risqué (or is it risky) show: "In its advertising for the program, the network has proudly flaunted legitimate criticism of the show, placing phrases like 'Very Bad for You,' 'Every Parent's Nightmare' and (the PTC's contribution) 'Mind-blowingly Inappropriate' on websites, magazine pages, buses and billboards everywhere." Of course the only quote that the PTC is willing to give a source for is their own, so we aren't even sure where those phrases come from. It could be organizations like the PTC, it could be a TV critic, or it could be The CW's own publicity machine. We don't know.

But then that's not the point of the PTC's piece, it is the November 3rd episode, which the organization claims, "lived down to its billing." In the episode Blair, a high school senior with ambitions of going to Yale is serving as a chaperone for fifteen year-old Emma who is the daughter of "an elite Yale donor." Emma wants to lose her virginity – that night! It seems that Emma is as competitive with a girl named Muffy as Blair is with Serena (?) and Muffy has arranged to lose her virginity the same night, to the captain of her school's lacrosse team: "'They call him the De-Virginator!' Emma squeals." The article quotes Emma as saying, "I want Bacardi and a boy. This body's open for business!" It's cheesy dialogue but what I find difficult to swallow is the Council's interpretation of Blair's response: "Emma attempts to enlist Blair's help, but Blair is rightly concerned – about her own future: 'She determined to become a woman on my watch. And if I don't help pimp her out, she's going to character assassinate me to the dean.'" So in other words for Blair to be able to have Emma on her side, all she has to do is find a guy for Emma to have sex with, and make sure that no one finds out. This doesn't seem to me to be too difficult a thing to accomplish. And yet as the PTC points out, Blair doesn't help Emma lose her virginity but manages to persuade the younger girl that the "first time" needs to be about more than just being in a competition with Muffy: "Having sex for the first time shouldn't be part of a competition to beat Muffy the Lacrosstitute."

One would think that the PTC would be happy about this – a character on the show talks someone else out of having casual sex, a victory for chastity or at least some version of virtue. Ah, but that would blunt the PTC's righteous indignation over this show – not to mention their efforts to promote a Rand Corporation study on the effects of "frequent exposure to TV sexual content." Instead, the PTC describes Blair's efforts to keep Emma a virgin as "the rankest hypocrisy on the part of the program"! Why? Because "Blair herself, though only a high school senior, has been shown to have had sex with multiple men in past episodes." Setting aside the fact that as a high school senior Blair is above the age of consent in most of the United States (17 is the age of consent in New York where the series is set – there are only about twelve states where the age of consent is 18, while in thirty states and Canada the age of consent is 16), the PTC is saying that Blair's admonitions to Emma about giving up her virginity is invalid because Blair herself is deemed by the PTC to be promiscuous. Of course, we don't know the circumstances of Blair's first sexual encounter; whether her admonitions were because her first time was a "special" romantic event (to her if not for the boy), or because she was in the equivalent of "a competition to beat Muffy the Lacrosstitute" and she has come to regret it since. No, Blair is a slut, and therefore using this character to warn Emma away from a too young first sexual experience (while at the same time protecting her potential entry to Yale) is "the rankest hypocrisy on the part of the program." And I for one find that attitude on the part of the PTC to be the rankest hypocrisy – it's not enough to offer a message against sexual activity at the age of 15, that message has to come from someone that the PTC deems to be "worthy."

When it comes to the Cable Worst Of The Week – another dip into BBC America's Skins – I suppose that the PTC has slightly more to be upset with. Now remember I haven't seen this series. In fact it airs on one of the premium movie channels (Super Channel) up here that I don't subscribe to. The episode in question, the fourth of the second season, deals with the relationship between Tony and Michelle. Tony was hit by a bus at the end of the first season while he was trying to regain his cell phone signal – he was talking to Michelle and trying to tell her he loved her. In this episode Michelle is trying to reignite the sexual part of their relationship, although Tony's memory has been hampered by the accident and he has developed erectile dysfunction. She also has to deal with Scarlett, her new step-sister, to whom she takes an immediate dislike. On a camping trip (onto which Scarlett has invited herself), Michelle has sex with Sid, Tony's best friend who has had a secret crush on her. They have sex which leads to an orgasm for Michelle – her first with a partner – in part because he's both grieving for Tony and has broken up with his long time girlfriend Cassie, who is in Scotland now (or so he thinks).

This is all pretty mature stuff of course, and the show is rated by BBC America as TV-MA, which means that parents who use the V-Chip shouldn't have any difficulty keeping their kids away from it while those who don't should at least know that with that rating it isn't something that their teenagers should be watching. The 10 p.m. Eastern time slot should also be a clue that this show isn't intended for most teenagers. Ah, but none of this matters to the PTC. To them the logical steps seem to be: TV show is about teenagers therefore the target audience must be made up entirely of teenagers. Thus they make sure to paint, in the most horrified of clarity – even if they have to make up some of the motives for the actions of the characters entirely out of their own filthy minds (and since they see the worst in every action on TV those minds are obviously filthy) – the depravity of the characters, and the writers and directors responsible for them. Thus we have this description of Michelle's desire to have sex with Tony: "Tony has recently been hit by a bus and suffered a head injury which affected his memory and bodily responses; but rather than being sympathetic and helpful, teenager Michelle's greatest concern is Tony's inability to have sex with her." They then go into some of the dialog, making sure to titillate by inserting the words that were covered up by the people at BBC America:

Michelle: "You used to say one (muted t**) was bigger than the other. Look at me, for (muted f***'s) sake!"

The topless Michelle straddles Tony, reaching inside his underwear. Her hand is seen moving about inside his shorts as she fondles him. Tony is unable to have an erection, causing Michelle to erupt in rage and slap him:

Michelle: "It's all (muted f*****) up forever… You bastard! What the (muted f***) were you doing in the road? You idiot! You (muted f******) idiot!"

One obvious interpretation of how this scene is written is that Michelle's "rage" at Tony has less to do with Tony's inability to perform than it does with Michelle's own inability to cope with Tony's sudden disability (and the fact that he is not able to act in the one area where their relationship seems to function best) and the unfairness of it all. Onto which is added her mother's new marriage and Michelle's new step-sister Scarlet. The PTC has something to say about this of course: "Michelle is graphically presented with evidence of her mother's sex life, as a workman drops a box containing her mother's vibrators and other sex toys (including a mechanical hand which "walks" about on its fingers). Michelle also watches as her new step-father gropes his own daughter Scarlet's rear, then gets into a hot tub with her, both of them naked." The latter description is probably the most genuinely shocking part of this as it implies an incestuous relationship between Scarlet and her father that apparently isn't dealt with in much more depth. Michelle having sex with Sid is dealt with by the PTC in a typical fashion: "Ultimately, Michelle does manage to quench her desires, though it is with Tony's best friend Sid: Michelle: 'Wasn't that the best night ever?...You made me come, Sid. Nobody's ever done that before!'" The PTC's interpretation of Michelle is that that she is obsessed with sex and is using Sid to satisfy her selfish desires. A different interpretation is that Sid and Michelle – the two people in the group closest to Tony – enter into this event emotionally overwrought by the changes in their friend, and their inability to cope with the changes that the accident has brought. But of course that's too deep for the PTC, or maybe just not tawdry enough.

Here is the PTC's conclusion on Skins. After again citing the Rand Corporation study on the effects of "frequent exposure to TV sexual content" they bring this up: "Skins is aimed directly at teen viewers; and BBC America is doing everything it can to promote the sex-filled program: 'Forget all the predictable controversy of Gossip Girl -- the cool kids have moved onto Skins!' blares one of the network's ads for the show. Given the scientifically documented influence that such programming has on teens, BBC America's continued enthusiasm for the program moves from economic self-interest into willful [sic] negligence." The claim that the show is "is aimed directly at teen viewers" would seem to be contradicted by the network's decision to give it a TV-MA rating which, as Wikipedia notes, means that "This program is not intended for children and therefore may not be suitable for children under the age of 17.... The program may contain extreme graphic violence, strong profanity, overt explicit sexual dialogue, nudity and/or strong sexual content." As for the ad for the show, it is troubling to an extent if it is indeed marketing the show to the teenage viewer. However, what isn't clear (at least not to me, since the only reference I have is to what the PTC says the ad says, and not to the visual imagery) is exactly who "the cool kids" refers to; is it – as the PTC claims – the teenaged viewing audience, or are they the characters on the show?

Since the PTC is making so much of it, it might be appropriate to look at the Rand Corporation study. Or rather what we're able to find out about the study. It was done for journal Pediatrics and published in the November 2008 edition. According to the study's fact sheet (which is where the link above goes to) the study used "data from a national longitudinal sample of youth 12–17 years old at initial sampling. The youth were interviewed first in the spring of 2001 and then reinterviewed one year and three years later. Researchers focused on 23 popular programs that were widely available on broadcast and cable television and contained high levels of sexual content (both depictions of sex as well as dialogue or discussion about sex). The shows included drama, comedy, reality, and animated programs." It was also stated that the study adjusted for other contributing factors, "including living in a single-parent household and engaging in problem behaviors such as skipping school." The researchers claimed that, "the proportion of teens who are likely to become pregnant or be responsible for a pregnancy in their teen years is two times greater among those who view high levels of televised sexual content (those in the 90th percentile) than among those who view low levels (those in the 10th percentile)." A graph provided with the fact sheet showed that the percentage of teens expected to become pregnant or be responsible for a pregnancy at the time of the final interview at age 16 was 5% at the low level and approximately 12% at the high levels. At age 20 at the time of the final interview the percentage for the low percentile group was 10% and for the high percentile group 25%. For the medium exposure group (the 50th percentile) the figures were 7.5% at age 16 up to approximately 15% at age 20. One interesting aspect of the study is that the percentages for each group listed were roughly parallel throughout the age groups.

The study offered four recommendations:

  • TV industry leaders should examine how programming can include messages to teens about the consequences of sexual activity.
  • Media literacy instruction in middle and high schools can help teens think more critically about the relative absence of negative consequences of sex in TV portrayals and encourage thinking about alternative outcomes to those seen on TV.
  • Training for pediatricians should include intensified efforts to teach about the effects of media exposure on children's health.
  • Parents need to monitor their teens' TV viewing and provide education about the consequences of sex. Tools that can help them review television content may be helpful.

I can't imagine the PTC being overly enthusiastic about any of these recommendations, particularly the first, which seems to indicate that there is a way to present content that deals with sex and sexuality that goes beyond banning such programming regardless of when the show airs. Certainly they aren't particularly sympathetic to the existing tools that can help parents review and monitor teens TV viewing (the V-Chip being the prominent one), and one can scarcely expect them to embrace the idea of "media literacy instruction in middle and high schools" as a way to get teens to think critically about the depictions of sex in TV portrayals.

While there are aspects of this study that I would like to see more information on – specifically regarding sample size, socio-economic groupings (since teen pregnancy seems to be more common in poorer economic groups), availability or willingness to use contraceptives, and most notably the identities of the programs defined by the study as having high levels of sexual content – there seems to be some validity to the study, particularly when you consider a 2004 study by the Rand Corporation entitled Does Watching Sex on Television Influence Teens' Sexual Activity?
According to that study, there was a correlation between teens watching a lot of shows that contained sexual content – both depictions of sexual activity and sexual talk – and whether they have their first sexual activity in the next year. However there was also evidence of a correlation between shows that offered information about the risks of sexual activity. The study was based on the reactions of teenage viewers to an episode of Friends in which the efficacy of condoms is discussed (the episode is The One Where Rachel Tells...). The researchers drew an interesting conclusion: "The study did not find dramatic changes in teens' sexual knowledge or belief. However, it looked at only a single episode of television, and one that included the somewhat complicated message that condoms almost always work, but sometimes fail, and with huge consequences. The researchers concluded that entertainment shows that include portrayals of sexual risks and consequences can potentially have two beneficial effects on teen sexual awareness: They can teach accurate messages about sexual risks, and they can stimulate a conversation with adults that can reinforce those messages." Needless to say, it is likely that the PTC would condemn this episode of Friends for discussing sex at all.

Moving from sex to language, the PTC has released a new study that claims that the broadcast networks are airing an increasing amount of "harsh profanity." They certainly make this study sound scientific. According to the press release, "This Parents Television Council analysis of foul language on television is based on a comprehensive and exhaustive look at all primetime entertainment programming (sports and news programs excluded) on the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, CW, MyNetworkTV, UPN and WB) between 1998 and 2007. Every instance of unbleeped or partially-bleeped foul language selected for this analysis was recorded in and retrieved from the PTC's custom-designed Entertainment Tracking System (ETS) database and sorted by word, year, network and timeslot." It certainly sounds impressive and scientific, and the results sound shocking:

  • In total, nearly 11,000 expletives (hell, damn, ass, piss, screw, bitch, bastard, suck, crap, shit, and fuck) were aired during primetime on broadcast TV in 2007 – nearly twice as many as in 1998.
  • Milder expletives like hell, damn, crap, etc., are starting to take a back seat to harsher words. In 1998, 92% of the foul language on TV was comprised of milder expletives. In 2007, 74% of the foul language could be categorized as mild, however, more than a quarter of the expletives a child will hear on TV today will be some form of the f-word, s-word, or the b-word.
  • The f-word aired only one time on primetime broadcast TV in all of 1998 – yet it appeared 1,147 times on primetime broadcast TV in 2007 on 184 different programs.
  • The s-word, which appeared only two times in 1998, aired 364 times in 2007 on 133 different programs.
  • Usage of the b-word on primetime television has increased 196% from 1998 to 2007 (431 to 1277). The number of programs using the b-word likewise increased from 103 in 1998 to 685 in 2007.
  • The f-word first aired on a UPN show in 1998 at 8:00 p.m. In 1999, the number of times the f-word aired on broadcast television during primetime increased to 11.
  • In 2007, 52% of the programs that contained the f-word and 55% of the programs that contained the s-word aired during the 8:00 p.m. Family Hour.
  • In 2007, the f-word aired in 96 shows during the 8:00 p.m. hour. CBS and Fox accounted for almost 60% of all shows airing this expletive.
  • In 1998, no shows on broadcast television aired the s-word at 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. By 2007, the s-word appeared in 73 shows at 8:00 p.m. and 52 shows at 9:00 p.m. Fox and ABC accounted for 77% of the shows airing the word during the 9:00 p.m. hour (46% and 31% respectively).
  • Nearly a quarter (24%) of the programs that aired the f-word and 25% of the programs that aired the s-word in 2007 did not carry the L-descriptor, which would have triggered the mechanism in the V-chip to allow families who do not wish to be exposed to such content to block the programs from coming into their homes.
  • In 2007, 29% of programs aired the b-word without an L-descriptor, which was more frequent than the f-word and s-word. This may indicate a growing comfort with the word in the networks' standards and practices departments and their failure to even recognize the word as offensive.

Okay what to say about this one. I mean besides "what the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks is the 'B-word?" Okay, how about this one; the PTC is full of 'S-word" on this one. For the most part we aren't hearing these words thanks in no small part to the actions of the networks and their standards and practices divisions in bleeping the most offensive words. Which they've been doing since even before the PTC was a gleam in Brent Bozell's eye by the way. But here's the big thing. The PTC notes an increase in the use of the "f-word" and the "s-word" between 1998 and 2007. Now what has happened in this time period? Well of course it's the rise of the reality shows. The degree to which these shows are "reality" is and has been debated from the time that Richard Hatch hit the beach in Pulau for that first episode of Survivor but the one thing that is obvious is that the people's words are their own, expletives and all. Given that these are real people the stark truth would seem to be that this is how people actually talk. And with one notable exception – which I'm certain was a result of the muffled nature of the word – those words are bleeped. With rare exceptions, such as Dr. Mark Greene saying "shit" on an episode of ER (at a time when that word is probably the only appropriate response – the man realises that he's going to die very soon), scripted programming doesn't even try to use the "harsh profanity" like the "s-word" and the "f-word" (not to mention the two "c-words") – I don't know about the "b-word."

But here's the big thing: the PTC complains that "nearly a quarter (24%) of the programs that aired the f-word and 25% of the programs that aired the s-word in 2007 did not carry the L-descriptor, which would have triggered the mechanism in the V-chip to allow families who do not wish to be exposed to such content to block the programs from coming into their homes." But remember that we still aren't actually hearing the words in question. We're hearing a bleep, or nothing at all as the word is edited out. Often we aren't even able to read the lips of person saying the words because their mouths have been blurred or pixellated. So why should there be an L-descriptor added to a show where the offensive words can't be heard or seen but only inferred? To my mind the broadcast networks – while they are increasingly airing shows that include profanities of various strengths including some like "crap" and "suck" that I don't consider to be expletives – are acting responsibly in this matter. The people who aren't acting responsibly are the PTC. This particular press release is designed to inflame their base with a mixture of scare tactics and misinformation.

And just to prove that people on live TV occasionally let a word slip out that they don't intend to, I present this clip from MSNBC's Morning Joe in which Joe Scarborough says "fuck you" and doesn't seem to realise that he has said it even though the other people in the interview react. This particular incident is of some importance because Scarborough has been a strong and vocal advocate of the FCC fines following the Janet Jackson incident, increased FCC fines for indecency, and just about any use of "the f-word." Indeed Glenn Greenwald of goes into great detail about Scarborough's activism on this issue, concluding (erroneously as it turns out since MSNBC is a cable network and not subject to FCC fines) with the following: "Using Scarborough's outraged crusades from the past, one would have to conclude that it insufficient that he merely apologize for what he said, and instead, MSNBC must be severely fined for what Scarborough said – especially since it was heard during the morning when many of America's children could be watching. After all – as he so eloquently put it – 'what does it say about our FCC that we've come this far or you could say gone this far backward that somebody could say the "F" word on TV and get the federal government's approval?'" (In fact, although under no legal obligation to do so, MSNBC has imposed a seven second delay on the Morning Joe show.)

Update: The PTC reacted predictably to Scarborough's misstep, subsequent apology and the most importantly MSNBC's decision to put Morning Joe on a seven second delay. In a press release dated November 11 - but which didn't actually appear on the organization's website until November 13, Tim Winter of the PTC writes, "We applaud MSNBC for taking the necessary steps to prevent other mishaps like this in the future. Although this is a cable network that is not subject to the same decency standards as broadcast networks, millions of families are grateful for MSNBC’s decision to try to prevent inappropriate language from airing. Scarborough’s outburst apparently caught him by surprise as much as it did viewers and his co-hosts, as he offered a profuse and sincere apology as soon as he realized what he had done. He set a great example by immediately taking responsibility for his actions, and we applaud him for that. His example is rare. And that is what is so concerning: His example is so rare." And then the added a demand - sorry, a "call" for all networks to institue a several second delay on all their live programming: "If a several second tape delay is good enough for MSNBC, then NBC should follow suit with the Today show and its other live programming. In addition, we call on every cable and broadcast network to follow MSNBC’s example. Inappropriate and offensive language is wholly unnecessary and has no place on these programs. We are thankful that MSNBC is going to lead by example." Personally, I was both unimpressed and unsurprised by MSNBC's unforced decision to put Morning Joe on a seven second delay. I think that this sets a dangerous precedent that the PTC has already decided to exploit. Coming as it does while the Supreme Court is deliberating FOX v. FCC, it sends a dangerous message to those who would hand out fines for every occurance of the f-word, s-word or b-word (whatever that may be) and anything else that these pressure groups is "indecent" or "inappropriate and offensive" and that message is that we're willing to surrender our standards to placate you.

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