I confess that sometimes I get complacent about the PTC. Like I did this past month or so. It's the little things that drive you towards this. The vague hope that maybe they are sated, for lack of a better term. Alternately the sense that maybe they're losing steam. Certainly the continuing failure to update the "Misrated" column gives a hint of that. Of course they just might not be able to find interns to slave for them, what with the election and all that. And of course there's the repetitive nature of the thing. I mean how many times can you write about their vendettas against South Park and Rescue Men and Two And A Half Men and My Name Is Earl and just about everything that Seth McFarlane has created. And of course there's always the sense that they've gone about as far as they can go in the stupidity sweepstakes.
And just when you think that can't go any dumber, they get a little bit stupider.
I'm not sure how they're going to top their latest descent into the moronic. In a press release dated October 22nd the PTC announced to the world – and more importantly to their 1.3 million members and assorted hangers-on – that they were filing an obscenity complaint against one of their perpetual targets, Two And A Half Men. According to the press release, the October 20th episode "crossed the indecency line." In his statement announcing the complaint PTC President Tim Winter stated, "The shocking episode included a strip club scene that lasts three full minutes and features up close shots of a leading character being 'serviced' by a stripper complete with moaning and other sexual references. The scene was in no way 'fleeting' or accidental; rather, it was specifically written into this scripted program."
At this point gentle (and not so gentle) readers I would refer you to the PTC's "Worst of the Week" page for that very episode. Why? Well the PTC has supplied a clip of the very scene that they are claiming is so indecent that it is worthy of a complaint to the FCC by the PTC and its 1.3 million easily offended members (and assorted hangers on). For those of you using Internet Explorer or Google Chrome, just click the "Play" button on the Player; those of you using Firefox and Safari click the link that says download the clip. Go ahead and do that, I'll wait.
Doh de Doh de Doh Doh Dooooh.
Okay, are we all back? Have we taken care of any uh, side effects, that this scene might have provoked in we poor easily corrupted human males? Good. That is what the PTC currently thinks is indecent! I'm not sure how they get there to be honest with you. The setting is the world's most chaste strip club. The "stripper" in question is wearing more clothes than many women wear on the beach. She is not "Charlotte Ross nude" – the subject of the infamous FCC NYPD Blue decision which is currently under appeal. We are not seeing the "curve of her naked breasts" which was the cause of a PTC complaint about an episode of Las Vegas. No one in the scene is using any of the seven words you can't use on TV including the ones that you've been able to use for a while now. All of the participants in the scene are above the age of consent, which seems to have been the basis for the FCC fine in the Without A Trace "teen orgy" case, nor is it a simulation of a "sexual act" as most of us would be inclined to define it and as the FCC seems to have defined it in that same decision. It is certainly not of the standard of the bachelor party scene from the reality series Married By America which earned FOX an FCC fine. No, to quote the description from the "Worst of the Week" page (because it has the most comprehensive description of the scene that supposedly crossed the indecency line): "The episode begins with Charlie running into teenager Jake's former 5th grade teacher, Dolores Pasternak. Dolores suffered a nervous breakdown and lost her teaching job after Charlie dumped her, and now works as an exotic dancer known as Desiree Bush. She chews out Charlie for ruining her life. In a rare moment of guilt, Charlie feels responsible for Ms. Paternak's misfortunes and decides to help her. Charlie visits the strip club where she works, bringing his brother Alan along. Once at the strip club, Charlie asks a dancer onstage, 'When does Ms. Bush come out?' The dancer replies, 'Whenever Ben Franklin comes out.' Charlie clarifies, 'I mean Desiree Bush.' He turns and recognizes Dolores' rear waving in front of his face. Dolores/Desiree refuses to talk to Charlie unless he pays for a private dance, whereupon Charlie offers to buy one for Alan. Once in the private room, Dolores bumps and grinds on top of Alan, who moans in pleasure: 'Whoo, doggies!' As she straddles Alan he stops her: 'Excuse me, I've got to readjust. I'm playing ring toss with my car keys.' She mounts him again, tosses her head back and sticks her chest out while Charlie offers to hire her as Jake's tutor. When she asks if Alan agrees with the proposal he squeaks, 'Oh…yes. Yes. YES!'" According to the PTC, "This scene was not just sexually suggestive -- it actually depicted a borderline sexual act. The graphic lap dance crosses the line into indecency." Oh puh-lease! Borderline sexual act? Graphic lap dance?! Maybe to an Islamic mullah, but for the rest of us it's hardly the stuff of arousal to sexual excitement. To be sure the script is full of double entendres, and even single entendres but that's pretty much expected of Two And A Half Men, and besides while it may be done in a way that offends good taste it is most assuredly not done in a way that offends the legal definitions of indecency.
Not surprisingly the mainstream media has not picked up on this story, and to be honest with you I'm not sure that they should if only because they can't give it the sort of ridicule that it truly deserves. I've only found two news items about the complaint. One is from OneNewsNow.com, "a division of the American Family News Network" and a website that has stories about whether Obama "supports the radical homosexual agenda espoused by one of his fundraising co-chairs," or how "there would be no mention of resurrecting the 'Fairness Doctrine' if talk radio were dominated by liberals." (The latter is one of those things that makes anyone with a bit of knowledge burst out laughing; the old and now discontinued "Fairness Doctrine" was established in law with the "Red Lion Decision" before the Supreme Court which essentially allowed regulation of the airwaves by the FCC because of the "scarcity of frequencies." Decry the basis of the Fairness Doctrine and weaken Red Lion and incidentally the case of people like the PTC. Click this link to read about Red Lion.) Obviously they drank buckets full of the cheap Kool-Aid substitute. The other news report is from TVNewsday which essentially reprints the PTC press release without comment. However broadening my search a bit further I came upon this from Tom Jicha, TV critic for the South Florida Sun-Sentinal and fellow PTC hater: "The Parents Television Council, which has been having trouble getting its name in the paper because of all the political news, announced it is filing a complaint with the FCC over Monday's episode of Two and a Half Men. The scene in dispute involved Jon Cryer's character getting a fairly explicit strip club lap dance. As it played out, I thought to myself, the Moral Mafia is going to get all worked up--no pun intended--over this. They never disappoint. They are still bringing up Janet Jackson's Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, largely because it was the last time anyone paid them serious attention. The Super Bowl, they had a point. That was an ambush. But anyone who doesn't know by now that Two and a Half Men is the raciest (and funniest) show on TV shouldn't be allowed near a remote control. This complaint, like almost all the other thousands the PTC and their fellow travelers file, will get nowhere but it will win them some attention that will help in fund-raising, which is what this is all about." He's right of course (except that I didn't find the scene all that racy but then I'm a Canadian and we're made of and used to stronger stuff) but really, the very fact that they even think they have grounds to complain makes it noteworthy in the annals of PTC intolerance.
I'm only going to give brief mention to the PTC's current Worst on Cable. It's another attack on the BBC America presentation of Skins which originally aired on Britain's E4, a satellite station owned by Channel 4, a broadcast network that is known for its cutting edge dramas. The series subsequently aired on the broadcast channel. The particular episode that the PTC found objectionable was a second season episode called Sketch, in which a teenage girl develops a major infatuation of Maxxie – an openly gay male character that goes to the point of stalking. When Maxxie gives her slight encouragement – he asks if she's "single" intending to set her up with his friend Anwar her obsession takes off, to the point where she sneaks into his room and masturbates on his bed upt to the time when he comes home at which point she hides under his bed and apparently stays there all night. Later, when she does surrender her virginity to Anwar, it is apparent from the way the scene is shot (as seen in the clip that accompanies the article) that the only enjoyment she gets out of the act comes from looking at a picture of Anwar and Maxxie, and presumably imagining that it is Maxxie who is making love to her rather than Anwar copulating with her. Having described the situation in explicit detail, the PTC doesn't seem to have many placed to take it. They don't even enter into their usual diatribe demanding Cable Choice and asking why the public is "forced to subsidize" programming such as this. Instead they latch onto something in an "inside look" type commentary that aired during the episode: "Incredibly, during an "inside look" at the show that aired during a commercial break, one of the actors made the audacious claim that '[Skins] is a very true-to-life program.' Only on TV are stalking, hiding in other people's rooms watching them undress, and masturbating in other people's beds considered 'true-to-life.'" But of course the character of Sketch is emotionally damaged – something that the PTC writer admits in his piece – and if there's one thing that we know from "real life" it is that stalkers exist and they are people who are emotionally damaged, and that they do things that go far beyond "hiding in other people's rooms watching them undress, and masturbating in other people's beds." But of course the PTC expects Sketch to be portrayed as though she were emotionally stable even after admitting that she isn't emotionally stable. And this is used as evidence that "Increasingly, on shows like Gossip Girl and Skins, sex is treated as a weapon, a tool girls must use to manipulate men at the expense of their own body. In this toxic media environment, sexual deviance is routinely pawned off as normal." But of course in Skins at least, that isn't the case; Sketch's activities, her "sexual deviance" as the PTC puts it, is most assuredly not portrayed as normal but rather the acts of a disturbed person.
Finally we turn to the PTC's TV Trends column. This time around the Council takes another run at demonizing anyone who dares to appeal an FCC decision that the PTC agrees with. The target this time around is NewsCorp President Peter Chernin. Chernin was recently given the Media Institute's Freedom of Speech Award – or as the PTC puts it, "the Media Institute's so-called 'Freedom of Speech' award." I want to start this part of this post with the conclusion that the writer of this latest screed offers: "Peter Chernin and his fellow media oligarchs claim that their 'First Amendment rights' are in jeopardy. Given the use to which they are already putting their freedoms – and the public's airwaves -- one may legitimately ask: if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Fox and allows it to air whatever offensive and harmful material it wishes, can America's cultural suicide be far behind?" Beyond the fact that I love how the writer puts the words "First Amendment rights" in quotes, as if such rights are an illusion or somehow non-existent for Chernin or the "media oligarchs" or maybe just the broadcast media in general, I have to wonder at a culture so fragile that someone saying "fuck" or "shit" on TV in the heat of the moment will lead to "America's cultural suicide." Because that of course is the issue that the PTC writer is so incensed about, the upcoming Supreme Court appeal of the "fleeting obscenities" ruling by the Second Circuit Court.
But let's go back to the beginning of the article. Chernin had made a speech after accepting the Media Institute Freedom of Speech award which was reported in Broadcast & Cable. The PTC claims that in that speech Chernins said that "the regulation of indecent and obscene entertainment programming on broadcast TV will somehow automatically lead to the overthrow of the democratic process in American politics." As usual this is a case of the PTC deliberately misinterpreting someone's words because what was actually said does not aid their cause. Here is the relevant portion of what Chernin said, as reported by Broadcast & Cable. He begins by noting the coincidence that the FOX case and the US elections are being held on the same day:
Chernin said the coincidence of the two events was appropriate. "The Fox case, if successful, is an affirmation of the First Amendment. The election is an affirmation of our democratic process. And the two are inextricably intertwined. The First Amendment is central to our democratic process because it ensures a full and open dialogue about the candidates for office. Without the First Amendment, our democracy could not be sustained," he said.
"While a case with Cher and Nicole Richie at its center is probably not one we would have chosen to argue before the Supreme Court," said Chernin, "we don't get to pick our cases. In fact, if anyone had told me that my company would be before the U.S. Supreme Court defending inane comments by Cher and Nicole Ritchie, I would have said, 'You're crazy.' But I would contend that the nature of this speech, and who said it, makes absolutely no difference."
That's because Chernin called the heart of the case "an absolute threat to the First Amendment. It hinges on utterances that were unscripted on live television. If we are found in violation, just think about the radical ramifications for live programming – from news, to politics, to sports. In fact, to every live broadcast television event. The effect would be appalling."
"As a media company," said Chernin, "we have not just a right but a responsibility to stand up to the government when it crosses that First Amendment line in the sand – even if the content we are defending is in bad taste. And in the indecency context, that line has not only been crossed, it has been obliterated," he said.
Now I may be blind, but I don't see anything like what the PTC claimed was in his speech in this article. You know, the part about "the regulation of indecent and obscene entertainment programming on broadcast TV will somehow automatically lead to the overthrow of the democratic process in American politics."
Of course for the PTC what a finding for FOX in this case will mean is a blanket permission to "allow any kind of language on TV, in any amount and at any time of day." But Chernin is clear in his statement that this is not what this case is about: "It hinges on utterances that were unscripted on live television. If we are found in violation, just think about the radical ramifications for live programming – from news, to politics, to sports. In fact, to every live broadcast television event." And in fact that is the context of the case. The court is dealing with a sudden and arbitrary change in a policy that had been in place essentially since the beginning of the FCC's ability to deal with "indecent" content – the understanding that from time to time people on a live broadcast might forget themselves and say a word that under most circumstances would not be allowed, or that such a word might inadvertently be picked up on a microphone.
Then again, to the PTC, FOX is a veritable cess pool of unacceptable content, worse even than the other broadcast networks. The PTC says of this, "Clearly, Peter Chernin has an extremely high opinion of the programming that his networks currently air. In such a context, it is fair to ask: if Fox is demanding the 'right' to air anything it wants, any time it wants, what are the contributions the network currently makes to American culture and civil discourse?" They give as an example – inevitably given the PTC's attitude toward Seth MacFarlane – a couple of scenes from recent episodes of American Dad and Family Guy. I won't go into details except to mention a comment in parentheses at the end of the excerpts: "Of course, if Fox gets its way, "f******" – and every other profanity -- will never be bleeped again." Not true, as we've seen from Chernin's previous statement. However I will counter with what Peter Chernin said in his speech:
Chernin conceded some of the content Fox was defending in this and other cases "is not particularly tasteful," citing "expletives, the brief nudity, carefully placed whipped cream, and, of course, the pixels." He said he would not have allowed his kids when they were younger to watch some of those shows. But he also said Fox would "fight to the end for our ability to put occasionally controversial, offensive, and even tasteless content on the air."
That doesn't mean Fox doesn't make mistakes, he said, but the alternative is a media "ruled by fear of crossing an ambiguous line. Then, he says, the product becomes "less vital and more homogenous," viewers will have less choice, programming that is "provocative and accurately reflects our society will be compromised," and the First Amendment would be chipped away "until it becomes toothless."
The writer of this piece goes to great lengths to attack Chernin's position as being not just ill-formed but elitist and therefore invalid. Part of this is pointing out that the Media Institutes Board of Trustees are "oligarchs" by thoughtfully providing a link to the Institute web page that lists the members of the Board, most of whom are executives at various media companies ranging from Time Warner and NBC Universal to Belo Corporation and Clear Channel. They don't distinguish between the political viewpoints of the various companies or their executives – which I suspect is far more diverse than the political viewpoints of the leaders of the PTC – but that omission is most likely an attempt to make it seem that they all hold a unitary view. The use of the term Oligarchy – rule by a self determined elite who decides what is and isn't good for you – is a keystone for the PTC's argument on this issue since it allows them to paint it as "The People", as defined and given voice by the PTC, versus the evil elite. In fact they come right out and say it:
The entertainment industry often claims that the Parents Television Council is a tiny minority unrepresentative of most Americans, and that therefore our actions in advocating modest limits on indecency should be ignored. But considering that approximately 90% of everything Americans see, hear or read in the media is ultimately controlled by a few dozen network presidents and corporate chairmen, and possibly a few hundred more writers and producers, such a claim rings false. The PTC would willingly wager that our more than 1.3 million members are more in tune with the thoughts and feelings of average Americans than are a tiny clique of media bosses and their so-called 'creative' lackeys.
Obviously the matter of the PTC's so-called "modest limits on indecency" is questionable given the subjects of the their most recent campaigns (The Today Show "obscenity", the Survivor penis, and the Two And A Half Men lap dance) but I have serious doubts that the PTC's 1.3 million members is truly in tune with the majority of the 305.1 million people in the United States.
The PTC takes a very definite leap in logic in "proving" that the American public supports the action of the FCC in levying the fine against FOX on the "fleeting obscenity" issue. See if you can follow this (Emphasis is theirs):
The position held by Peter Chernin and his media cronies is that the U.S. government, following mandates from a Congress elected by the American people, should not enforce the common-sense standards of decency that the overwhelming majority of Americans want. That the overwhelming majority of Americans do want such common-sense standards of decency in entertainment is undeniable; in 2006, the people's elected representatives in the United States Congress passed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, increasing FCC fines for indecent content on broadcast TV. The House of Representatives voted in favor of this measure by a 10-1 margin; the Senate passed it unanimously.
But, because such measures do not meet with the approval of Peter Chernin and his fellow multi-millionaire moguls who control broadcast, cable and satellite television, radio networks, film studios, music companies, newspapers, magazines, and book publishing firms, these bosses demand that the law be overturned. The desires of average Americans be damned, say the Overlords of Media; anything that would limit the entertainment industry's "freedom" to make more obscene profits by deluging Americans with indecent and offensive content must not be allowed.
The logic is so faulty that it is laughable. Setting aside the fact that the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 (not 2006) does not deal with the definition of indecent or obscene content but rather with increasing fines for content defined by the FCC as being obscene or indecent, we are supposed to believe that that the "overwhelming majority of Americans" want this because their elected representatives voted for it en masse. This is, of course because the Representatives and Senators all asked everyone in their states whether or not they should vote for this measure. This is at best fallacious logic on the PTC's part. Let's set aside the dangers that the increased fines pose in terms of creating a chill in terms of what can be broadcast, as described in an article by Garrison Keillor in Salon in September 2005. Let's even set aside the views of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights (yeah I'm shocked that I'm citing them but it's a worthwhile quote) which wrote:
The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which increases the fines for the broadcast of "obscene, indecent, and profane language," is itself an indecent obscenity.
The FCC's power to regulate any speech is a violation of the right to free speech. The First Amendment clearly states: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Such freedom requires that the airwaves, like the printing press, be used in complete freedom – any way their owners wish (short of libel, fraud and the like). Just as each individual should determine what he sees or hears, so each media company should determine what it broadcasts.
Parents – not media professionals or government bureaucrats – are the ones who have the responsibility for supervising what their children see and hear in the media. If people find a program objectionable, they are free to turn it off. It is as simple as that.
Instead, let's get back to the facts of the case that the Supreme Court will be hearing on November 4th. The focus of the case is on the actions of the FCC in rewriting a policy that had been in place for over 50 years. In doing so, and not adequately explaining why it had abandoned this policy, the FCC was acting in violation of the Administrative Procedures which prohibits "arbitrary and capricious" behaviour by government agencies. In other words the FCC, an agency of the U.S. Government acted contrary to the laws of the United States. That this is a First Amendment question is obvious, but it is first and foremost a question of abuse of power.
It is actually my opinion that the position supported by the PTC is losing rather than gaining strength. Certainly that's the case amongst powerful people. Congressman John Dingel of Michigan of the House Commerce Committee wrote in a December 2007 letter to Kevin Martin FCC, that "given several events and proceedings over the past year, I am rapidly losing confidence that the commission has been conducting its affairs in an appropriate manner." In August of this year former FCC Chairmen Newton Minnow and Mark Fowler along with five other former officials of the Commission wrote in an amicus brief for the Supreme Court, "The indecency controls that began as a limited tool for reining in a small number of provocative broadcast personalities and irresponsible licensees have become a rallying cry for a revival of Nineteenth Century Comstockery," and they added that "Broadcasting is no longer unique and it is time for the Court to bring its views of the electronic media into alignment with contemporary technological and social reality." In September former FCC Chairman Michael Powell stated at a National Press Club Event that he had been wrong in approving the policy change: "It was a terrible mistake and I voted for it." He also said at the same event that the agency's regulation of broadcast decency had "gone way too far—we are dancing with the limits of the Constitution." But perhaps the most interesting position on this comes from Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stephens, who wrote the majority decision in FCC v Pacifica and is still a member of the court. In 2002, in a concurrent opinion on ACLU v Ashcroft Stephens wrote, "As a judge, I must confess to a growing sense of unease when the interest in protecting children from prurient materials is invoked as a justification for using criminal regulation of speech as a substitute for, or a simple backup to, adult oversight of children's viewing."
I don't pretend to know how the Supreme Court will rule on the "Fleeting Obscenities" case, although I obviously know how I would like them to rule (and I also know that this would not have been an issue in Canada). I do know that I found the PTC's rhetoric in this piece to be typically self-important and sneering and in a very real way dangerous. It's not something to be looked at complacently.