Monday, March 1, 2010

America's Obsession Over Indecency

 I have always maintained that what is indecent and obscene is in the eye of the beholder. Where it becomes a sticky widget is when such material is broadcast on the public airwaves.

What grabbed my attention were the headlines:


It was based on a report from ABC, Reuters and others that almost 50% of the top 50 broadcast TV indecency complaints filed at the FCC were directed at Fox.

Now, I'm no fan of Rupert Murdock and his stable of television channels under the auspices of News Corp., but the headline smacks of bias written by Fox haters.

It turns out 188,368 complaints were directed at Fox's "Family Guy" show, an animated cartoon series. It showed a baby drinking horse semen with his breakfast cereal. Add that to an unexplicable number of indecent reportage from Fox's sports channels -- of all places -- and you can understand why Fox might lap the field.

Even I admit the "Family Guy" episode was gross. The producers obviously thought it was funny.

Here's the dilemma. The Federal Communications Commission allows the episode in question aired between 10 p.m. and 6 .a.m. when children are supposed to be asleep and assuming parents have installed a censoring V chip. But does Fox own responsibility when the shows are broadcast any time of day through syndication?

The world's record for complaints occurred when Janet Jackson through an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction exposed a nipple for a nanosecond during the half time show of a Super Bowl game. An outsider would have thought it had as dynamic impact on American values as 9/11 on the presence of terrorism.

I confess I'm a strange duck in some capacities. While I support the value of petitions and the role of advocacy groups, I don't take seriously receiving the same complaint written in the exact words by 100 or more people through a chain letter/email drive.

My point is that the vast majority of the nearly 200,000 complaints against Fox and whatever the number against Janet Jackson were what one might describe as ditto head responses coming from advocacy groups. Ergo, the numbers are artificially inflated.

Whether the FCC staff, required to investigate each filed complaint, considers them as one, I don't know. They carry as much weight as the urban legends passed through my Internet spam collector in which I automatically delete without reading whether or not I know the sender.

One of the goofiest bans on the airwaves by the FCC is the use of profanity. During the 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. hours they are bleeped if the show is recorded. Let's take two examples.

"Rescue Me," the terrific show I think is still aired by Fox, contains profanity by New York firefighters in context of the story. I have rented the seasons' series from Netflix and nothing is bleeped.

Living on the West Coast, I can watch "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" on the following day's telecast on Comedy Central at 7 p.m. and the profanity is bleeped. I defy anyone to convince me I haven't a clue what the foul language actually was.

It is a charade. Who's kidding whom? As for children, anyone under 12 would have no interest in "The Daily Show" and all the others have heard the words on the school playgrounds.

We have allowed our courts and plutocrats to define indecency, obscenity and profanity for public consumption exempting the pay-to-watch premium channels. It is much more restrictive than my common sense approach which is to hold a civil tongue in polite, mixed company.

From the FCC website:

Obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and cannot be broadcast at any time. The Supreme Court has established that, to be obscene, material must meet a three-pronged test:
  • An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  • The material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and
  • The material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
The FCC has defined broadcast indecency as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” Indecent programming contains patently offensive sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity. 
The courts have held that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely. It may, however, be restricted in order to avoid its broadcast during times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience. 

Consistent with a federal indecency statute and federal court decisions interpreting the statute, the Commission adopted a rule that broadcasts -- both on television and radio -- that fit within the indecency definition and that are aired between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. are prohibited and subject to indecency enforcement action.

The FCC has defined profanity as “including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.” Like indecency, profane speech is prohibited on broadcast radio and television between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

My common sense law extends to this: If what you are watching is offensive, or think it could -- flip channels.

Or, turn the damn television off.

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