Television pits decency against ratings; stations worry about fines
With help from Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson flashed her right breast during the Super Bowl halftime show two years ago this weekend, fueling a national debate about indecency on television.
Moral watchdogs and many parents expressed outrage. The Federal Communications Commission levied $550,000 in fines against CBS. Politicians vowed to crack down on broadcasters who air offensive content. Skittish network executives yanked potentially sensitive programming - even the war movie "Saving Private Ryan," which had aired pre-Janet without fuss - amid speculation that, after years of plunging standards, TV would finally clean up its act.
So as the nation prepares for another Super Bowl on Sunday, has the entertainment landscape become more wholesome? Industry observers say no. Eminem and 50 Cent swear on their new records as much as before. Howard Stern does his lowbrow
shtick, uncensored, on satellite radio. Two of Hollywood's biggest hits last year, "Wedding Crashers" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," were raunchy sex comedies. Hidden sex scenes were found in the video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," whose players become street-gang members who gun down cops.
On TV, the primary battleground in the indecency wars, networks have become more careful about what gets on live broadcasts. Programming, however, is arguably coarser than it was before the 2004 Super Bowl. In remarks to a U.S. Senate forum last November, Parents Television Council President L. Brent Bozell cited prime-time TV series with recent plotlines about bestiality and a teen orgy.
"In the wake of the Janet Jackson incident, all of the broadcast networks trumpeted new policies to prevent the airing of indecent content," Bozell said. "However, it appears little has really changed. Simply put, the networks have no credibility when they talk about their commitment toward keeping the airwaves safe for families."
Broadcasters say they take seriously their role as stewards of the airwaves. They claim they err on the side of caution when making content decisions and note that most of the nation's 1,500 TV stations have never been cited by the FCC for airing indecent material. Joining them on this issue are free-speech advocates who equate government crackdowns on entertainment programmers to censorship.
Such debates aren't new. Similar furors erupted during the past century over such banned books as Henry Miller's sex-filled Tropic of Cancer; the daring material of stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce; pioneering porn films such as "Deep Throat"; and the profane lyrics of early rap group 2 Live Crew. Even Elvis Presley's hips were controversial once.
"American history is replete with efforts to cleanse the culture of indecency. It's an ongoing debate in our society," says Gene Policinski, executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Center. "It's a moving target. The values keep shifting. One generation's shocking lyrics are another generation's elevator music."
Controversy over TV programming was rare until the 1970s, when networks realized viewers were hungry for shows such as "All in the Family," which tackled such real-life issues as racism and rape. Around the same time advertisers began coveting younger viewers, so networks scrambled to create edgier shows that would appeal to them.
Then came the explosion of cable TV. Suddenly, viewers went from having a few choices to dozens of channels offering everything from sexy music videos to unedited, R-rated movies. To compete, broadcast TV loosened standards on such shows as "NYPD Blue," one of the first to feature nudity.
Today, as more TV shows compete for our attention, they must be more outrageous to get noticed. Mark Rubinfeld, a sociology professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and author of several books on pop culture, believes MTV and the Internet have raised a generation of remote-control-happy viewers who demand instant gratification, forcing programmers to forgo subtlety for sensationalism.
"Sex sells. Shock sells. Titillation sells," he says. "All these TV shows are after advertising dollars. If these shows weren't making money for the networks, they wouldn't be on."
Programmers respond to conservative critics by saying they are merely giving the public what it wants. It's no accident that explicit versions of songs outsell clean ones on iTunes.
"When the forces of righteous indignation go up against the forces of the marketplace, the forces of the marketplace always get their way," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. He notes that audiences who condemned Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" made the steamy "Desperate Housewives" a hit eight months later.
The Jackson-fueled firestorm has cooled since that night in Houston, but it hasn't gone away. Rallied by conservative watchdog groups such as the Parents Television Council, viewers flooded the FCC with complaints in early 2004. Jackson's glimpse of breast, combined with U2 singer Bono's utterance of the "F-word" during the 2003 Golden Globes awards show, led networks and many radio stations to adopt a five-second delay for most live broadcasts.
Politicians also are pushing for new laws that would put more teeth into the FCC's policing of the airwaves, while some activists want to extend government regulation to cable TV (see related story).
Almost everyone agrees children should be protected from indecent TV programming. But who should protect them? A 2005 survey by the Pew Research Center found 75 percent of adults want tighter enforcement of TV indecency laws, particularly when children are most likely to be watching. At the same time, a First Amendment Center survey found that 82 percent of Americans believe parents should be primarily responsible for shielding kids from inappropriate material on TV. Only 2 percent said that duty should rest with the government.
"Anytime the government tries to legislate morality it steps into almost an insoluble morass," says the FAC's Policinski. "Americans would rather make those decisions for themselves."
Broadcasters and free-speech advocates point to parental controls, such as the V-chip embedded in all newer televisions, that allow parents to block access to specific channels or shows. Others recommend parents don't let children have TVs in their bedrooms, where viewing habits can't be monitored. Most agree parents must become more informed and involved in what their kids watch.
"In the end, we have got to treat the TV like we treat the liquor cabinet, like we treat the gun rack," says Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, "as something that's potentially harmful to our children's health."