Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Who Does The PTC Hate Now

It's been a while since I've written one of these PTC pieces, and there's a reason. They make me ill. Oh, I don't mean that I want to vomit when writing one or anything like that (most of the time at least), but I usually end up spending too much time on them - because there's only a short length of time that I can look at their site - and feeling that my time could have been spent in so many more productive pursuits...like having a nap or picking lint out of my navel. At times like this it's even worse because while I clearly don't agree with the PTC, their methods, or their views on what is and isn't acceptable on television today, I have to confess that there are times when I sort of agree with what they're saying; there are shows out there with content that I find objectionable, and that I think would be better if they were in a later time slot. The difference is that if there's something that I don't like or find objectionable, I say that I don't like it and find it objectionable; I make no effort to impose my views on you or anyone else. The PTC in their neverending, and increasingly irrelevant and unsuccessful efforts to become America's national nanny not only tells you that they don't like something and find it objectionable but claim to speak for you. So let me make it clear, right now, that I don't like the PTC and I find them objectionable.

The big thing of course – and the reason why I'm writing this – is that the PTC has fired up the "big complaint machine" to go after one of the organization's favourite targets, Seth McFarland and Family Guy and the March 8th episode of the show in particular. A piece headlined Fox's Family Guy Spreads Filth on YOUR Airwaves on the PTC website leads directly to their pre-written email complaint set up. All you have to do is fill in your name, address and email and click the "Sign & Submit FCC Complaint" button. You don't even have to inconvenience yourself by watching the episode, or even reading the content that "you," through the medium of the PTC, are complaining about. There is a link to an article (which is filled with the usual level of invective from the PTC, and includes words such as "showered audiences in filth," "pump their sewage into YOUR living room," and "shows that corrupt YOUR kids and YOUR culture") and documentation in the letter that "you" are sending to the FCC, but the way the letter is laid out, the documentation is hidden unless you deliberately scroll down on that part of the page. In other words you don't actually have to know what you're complaining about in order to complain about it. And it is entirely possible that a lot of them don't.

So what is the PTC complaining about? Well here's the text of the documentation part of the PTC article:

In one scene, husband Peter lies in bed, his naked rear exposed. A horse enters and licks Peter's rear, as Peter moans in pleasure. "Mmm, what made you come around, Lois? I love you so much. I love you so much, Lois," Peter groans. The FCC has the DUTY to enforce the law and fine Fox for this gross violation of broadcast decency standards.

Among other atrocities in the episode, Peter warns his family that "some of the milk in the fridge is not milk, it's horse sperm," whereupon Baby Stewie eats cereal covered with the "milk"; Peter's gay lover greets him with news that he has arranged a gay "eleven-way" orgy; and Peter helps his son Chris with math homework:

"One trick I used to use is turning things into a word problem. For example, if there are three glory holes in the bathroom at the club and 28 guys at the circuit party. How many rotations of guys will it take before everybody's had a turn? Nine, with a remainder of Brent…Brent can't fit in the glory hole, and that's why we all like Brent."

Okay, so the PTC wants the FCC to fine or sanction FOX for this show. The question is what do they find to be actionable in the scenes cited in their complaint? As far as I can tell the answer is that there is nothing. According to their website the FCC is, by law, charged with preventing the broadcast of obscene material and enforcing the prohibition against indecent or profane material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Material that would be described as obscene according to the FCC definition. The FCC regulates "obscene, indecent, or profane" material and based on the FCC definitions it seems to me that the material cited by the Council does not meet the measure that the FCC has set for obscenity or indecency. Of course that's never stopped the PTC from filing complaints with the FCC in the past, and indeed the FCC has in the recent past – particularly during Kevin Martin's term as chairman – upheld complaints filed by the PTC and fined stations for material which previous commissions had either not found obscene or on which the commission had decided not to rule; nudity on NYPD Blue comes to mind immediately.

That isn't to say that the show isn't offensive to a lot of people. If I were Gay I probably wouldn't appreciate homosexuality being depicted as a lifestyle of anonymous sexual encounters – the reference to "glory holes" – or to promiscuous sexual behaviour – the "eleven way orgy." (I personally am offended that people named "Brent" are depicted as Gay men who are too large to fit through a "glory hole." I for one am not Gay. ;-) ) I'm not even going to touch on the question of the possibility that Stewie was eating cereal with horse semen beyond saying that based on consistency, not to mention taste, only a total moron would not know the difference between the two. However being offended by a show isn't justification for levying a fine on the show; it is justification for not watching the show.

Tied with their FCC complaint is a post in the PTC's TV Trends column called PTC To News Media: "Why Are You Not?" The title comes from a quote by Thoreau and refers to his conversation with Emerson when Thoreau was jailed over his refusal to pay his taxes in opposition to the Mexican War – Emerson: "Henry, why are you here?" Thoreau: "Why are you not?" It is more than a little incongruous for them to use that quote from Thoreau to attack the media in a battle to get government to issue a punitive fine on an issue of censorship, but then the PTC has shown any real understanding of irony. The gist of the column is that the news that the PTC was filing a complaint against FOX and The Family Guy episode was not reported "fairly." This seems to mean in a manner that was supportive of the PTC's aims and goals or failing that, neutral. According to the PTC there were a few news sources that "reported the PTC's request for enforcement of existing broadcast decency laws in a straightforward manner," including Broadcast & Cable, TVNewsday, and Communications Daily. It's worth noting that the outlets cited are all sites that report the news without commentary. And the PTC's complaint qualifies as news. But just because it is news does not mean that people don't have opinions on the subject and should not express them.

The PTC doesn't see it that way of course: "In fact, the much [sic] of the media's coverage was squarely in favor of Family Guy's harmful and offensive content – and took the opportunity to attack the PTC." But the PTC only cites five websites that were, "squarely in favor" and who taking "the opportunity to attack the PTC." The first is "The Hollywood Reporter's James Hibberd." One might assume means that Hibberd writes news articles for the trade paper, but in fact he does a blog for the Reporter website where he not only reports the news but often states his own opinion. Hibberd's article is not long but is ever so slightly mocking of the PTC, which is not unusual for him. (He most recently wrote an article on the PTC's outrage at the self-mastectomy scene in Nip/Tuck which is a cogent dismissal of the PTC and deserves to be read.) In this particular case Hibberd's sins are mocking PTC president Tim Winter – "there's nothing hotter than PTC president Tim Winter talking about graphic TV content" – then sneering (apparently one can sneer in print) "I know. I can't believe I missed Family Guy last week either" after running the PTC's own description of the episode objectionable content in the episode. Worst of all he quotes an interview from The Advocate in which Seth MacFarlane expresses his opinion of the PTC:

Oh, yeah. That's like getting hate mail from Hitler. They're literally terrible human beings. I've read their newsletter, I've visited their website, and they're just rotten to the core. For an organization that prides itself on Christian values – I mean, I'm an atheist, so what do I know? – they spend their entire day hating people. They can all suck my dick as far as I'm concerned.

They also object to Bob Sassone of TV Squad. For those who don't know, Bob has been a TV Squad blogger practically from the beginning of the site. He reviews TV shows and comments on news items. In short he is paid to express his opinions. In this particular article he wrote, "Actually, I was kinda shocked by the episode myself, but I'm always shocked by episodes of Family Guy. That's what makes it funny." That was enough to get him mentioned by the PTC. Celebrity gossip blogger and "self-proclaimed 'queen of all media'" Perez Hilton, who is in the business of expressing opinions, was also mentioned. The PTC said that in his article Hilton, "shrugged off the episode's content in his first sentence: 'Bestiality, orgies and babies eating sperm, oh my!'" and "went on to call the PTC's efforts "a waste of energy." Like Hibberd, Hilton uses the MacFarlane quote and repeats it (using the royal "we"), "The Parents Television Council can suck our dick!!!!"

Then there's what the PTC calls the "infinitely ignorable LA Rag Mag;" not really a "mag" or a "rag," just a website. According to the PTC the site "vomited forth the most vitriol" when describing the PTC as "some crazy Christian organization" with "1.3 million freedom hating members." They also objected to the opinion, expressed by the site, that, "We saw this episode and thought it was one of the funniest episodes we had ever seen. Yes, we did gasp at the sperm bottle consumption and the gay orgy scene." While the LA Rag Mag was factually incorrect in describing the PTC as "some crazy Christian organization" – the PTC is socially conservative but non-denominational – they do have every right to express their opinion that the PTC is "freedom hating." The LA Rag Mag also uses the MacFarlane's "objectionable" quote from The Advocate.

Perhaps the most puzzling reaction is to The Advocate because its article is perhaps the most balanced that the PTC cites. It is not given to opinion, supposedly what the PTC wants, with the PTC's complaint reported "in a straightforward manner." However they did offer MacFarlane's quote as a comment from the other side, which was enough – in the PTC's mind – to put The Advocate in the enemy camp, "implicitly defending Family Guy's offensive depictions of bestiality and babies eating sperm as 'off-the-wall animated comedy.'" But after declaring The Advocate to be the enemy they spend an entire paragraph being bewildered as to why they don't side with the PTC: "The Advocate's opposition to the PTC is odd, given that the Parents Television Council is not an anti-gay organization....The PTC's concern is solely that of protecting children from all graphic sexual content on TV, regardless of the genders or orientations of the individuals involved. Surely, gay parents and families are just as concerned about their children being exposed to graphic and gratuitous sexual content as are heterosexual parents."

Having "proven" that their FCC complaint against The Family Guy was not properly reported because a few outlets whose work frequently involves opinions said that they didn't see anything actionable about the episode, and dared to quote an interview by Seth MacFarlane in which he expressed an opinion of the PTC, the group turns to motive. And here is where they really seem to go off the deep end. Citing a pair of articles where the TV Trends writer "proved" that America's TV critics were "completely out of touch with the beliefs of average Americans" (articles which I examined and attempted to debunk in an earlier post) the writer then attempts to explain why members of the news media don't "properly" report on the PTC's complaint against The Family Guy. The media, they say, suffer from the "same defect" – they are totally out of touch with the beliefs of "average Americans." Their full explanation has to be read to be believed (the use of boldface here is mine; if I'm reading this right, the PTC is accusing the defenders of Seth MacFarlane of somehow benefitting financially as a result of defending him):

But what is truly of concern is this: those in the media are so invested emotionally (and perhaps financially) in defending Seth MacFarlane that none of them shows even the slightest concern about – or even interest in discussing -- the content of Family Guy itself.

The question must be asked: where are the reflective and intellectual qualities with which the nation's journalists are supposedly invested? Where is the news media willing to "speak truth to power," when the "power" is a multi-million-dollar Seth MacFarlane franchise? Is it truly the case that not a single one of these reporters believed that there is anything offensive in showing babies eating horse sperm on a Sunday night cartoon? Do none of America's media commentators believe there is anything indecent about describing "a gay eleven-way" in a show on at 8:00 p.m.? Are there no mainstream bloggers who think that mocking deaf children as "signing frantically" as they die is at all problematic? Is there nothing in this episode which any journalist, critic, or blogger found even mildly offensive or worthy of concern? Family Guy's doesn't content bother any of them? Really?

I am not a fan of The Family Guy. I don't watch the show and frankly some of the things that are described by both mainstream critics and bloggers were enough to persuade me that this show isn't for me. And yet I still defend it. In this case I defend it because even though the material may be offensive to some, it doesn't seem to me to meet any of the standards set by the FCC for censure, just as the episode of Las Vegas that they complained about to the FCC didn't seem to me to meet those standards. Mostly I defend it because this is a case of a small minority trying to decide what all other Americans should be allowed to watch. If every one of the PTC's alleged 1.3 million members were to sign a complaint form they would still be less than one-fifth of the 7.17 million people who watched that episode of Family Guy and quite clearly were not offended by the show, but of course there is no medium for them to make their case.

More and more I have come to regard the PTC as the schoolyard bully who when challenged complains that he is being bullied. There is no doubt that the PTC does try to bully producers, advertisers, networks, TV critics, the media, and in a way even the public it claims to serve. In the case of critics and the media, the organization makes the claim that they are out of touch with the beliefs of "average Americans" which is why the TV critic is a disappearing breed, while those in the media who don't cover the PTC and their actions (specifically their FCC complaints) in a manner that the PTC wants them to then it is the media who "refuses to speak truth to power" that does the work of the evil Seth MacFarlane and presumably (by logicl extension) other producers and shows that the PTC finds objectionable in silencing or ridiculing the PTC before the public. And yet surely if the PTC really did represent the views of "average Americans" they would have more members and the audiences for shows that the PTC finds objectionable, like Family Guy, would decline rather than staying stable or growing. If the PTC is really representing the views of "average Americans" then why isn't their membership larger than the viewership of Family Guy? My conclusion is that they represent only themselves and that while average Americans may be concerned with sex and violence on TV their definitions of what is objectionable are radically different from the puritanical views of the PTC leadership and their members and that real average Americans are dealing with the situation on their own without the "help" of the PTC and without using the organizations "big complaint machine." But what do I know – I'm just a not particularly average Canadian.


Anonymous said...

I watched the real episode. They didn't actually show the orgy, they just implied it (it happened off screen). The gag with the horse and Peter, while it was fairly gross, does NOT constitute the wild claim that it was bestiality. Last of all, that episode aired at 9:00, not 8:00 (except in Central Time Zone, which I don't get).

I wonder why Jon Stewart hasn't gone after the self-serving crazies at the PTC. I also wonder how long before they start to notice your criticisms and dismiss them on their website.

Anonymous said...

If the PTC's description of the episode of "Family Guy" is accurate, I understand completely why it should be censored. You might find that kind of stuff funny, but let me ask you something. Would you want your kids watching something like that? Would you watch it with your mother in the room? There are those of us who don't want to see that kind of thing at any time of day. Since you are so concerned about things being "fair," I'll be interested to see if my comment makes it onto your website. It works both ways.