Sunday, February 20, 2005

Excuse me, what's the proper context for "f*ck"?

The New York Times tell us "PBS Warns Stations of Risks From Profanity in War Film." Not surprising when you consider that the FCC has the most arbitrary of standards when it comes to imposing fines for their ever-shifting definition of 'obscenity.' Lawyers for PBS are not convinced that any foul language heard in the station's war documentaryA Company of Soldiers will be 'appropriate,' even considering the context- that is to say that they can't promise the affiliates that they won't be fined so PBS itself is asking them to sign a waiver if they want to air an uncensored version of the program. They cite FCC chair Michael Powell's cowardly after-the-fact vindication of ABC's airing of Saving Private Ryan: he told the stations AFTER they aired the special that they wouldn't be prosecuted for any obscenities in the movie. In other words, he left them to risk such a punishment beforehand, with them not knowing what the verdict would be later. Remember that Ryan aired on network television a few years ago with no complaints to the FCC but we live in a different hotly-contested overly moral atmosphere now.

So, will the PBS stations be safe with airing this other war film now? Maybe. There were still complaints about Ryan after it aired most recently but the FCC decided not to investigate. If there are enough complaints, regardless of the precedent, the FCC will figure that it might investigate this time with the PBS film. This is what happened with the Bono incident where at first, the FCC said that it wasn't a problem for him to say the word "fucking" during the Golden Globes awards and then when they got complaints, all of a sudden, it wasn't appropriate and they were ready to hand out fines.

I'm guessing that Saving Private Ryan was let off the hook permanently not because Powell, the FCC and the Parents Television Council (who have filed a majority of complaints to the FCC) thought there were artistic merits to Stephen Spielberg's film. Much more likely is that they didn't want to appear that they were coming out against soldiers. Most likely, some PBS affiliates will count on this to shield them when they run this documentary. I hope they're right but I wouldn't take any bets on this.

How easy is it to file a complaint with the FCC? If you go to their website to do this, you're greeted with the words: "Filing a Complaint with the FCC Is EASY." That's right- anyone can do it and that's why anyone has. Of course, whether they decide to act on it or not is another matter. If it's a perceived obscenity case, they'll waste no time. If it's thousands of people complaining about the FCC's policy of media consolidation, ol' Michael will have to table that one for now.

But back to the obscenity question and context... If Ryan and the PBS doc actually do become precedent, what will that mean for other arts? A drama teacher of mine explained to me that there are appropriate contexts for swearing. If a soldier has a body part blow off, they will be less likely to say "Oh, darn..." and more likely to say "MOTHERFUCKER!!!" I agree with that and I've used that as a guideline for writers that I've worked with. The question now is whether this will or can become standard policy with broadcasters. I'd say that's doubtful but let's follow along with this scenario- could this then be construed to be a precedent also for music, for example? If a radio station broadcasts a song with swearing in it, is there an appropriate context for it? Let's say it was a song about the soldier in our example- if it washes on TV, will it also be OK on the radio? If not, why is there a discrepancy?

Many labels side-step this question by offering 'clean' and 'explicit' versions with the former obviously targeted to the radio. Still, I'd love to see Powell and the FCC try to maneuver around such a problem as to distinguish what's permissible in a song. If movies can have proper context for curse words, why can't some songs? I don't expect the FCC to become philosophers about this and isn't because they claim to not impose an agenda onto the media and the public in general (which contradicts what they've been actually doing) but more likely because they don't have interest in addressing such a question- even Michael Copps, the Democrat FCC member who's insisted on public debates about media consolidation, is gung-ho about pushing for tougher standards to fight 'obscenity.' And sadly, by comparison, he's the closest that Commission has to a sane, responsible public servant.

Thankfully, print is not part of the FCC equation here when it comes to fines and regulations though there are other ways that this medium can be prosecuted (i.e. the recent Valerie Plume case). The assumption is that somehow, this objectionable material won't find its way into kids' hands because of parental supervision or some such thing. Also, it's likely that the print medium is so undervalued compared to others that there's little outcry against any perceived obscenity there (yet, I should say). In the way that it's considered so low on the whole media spectrum, that's not necessarily a good thing. However if it's the last refuge of a freer type of speech, we should cherish it as long as we can.

As for TV, Congress and Powell have both threatened that they may consider similar regulations for cable and satellite programming that they already are applying to network television. When it gets to the point that we all have to interact with and through the media on a grade school level, our only refuge otherwise will be to do what we used to do in class- secretly pass dirty notes around to each other.


Blogger Michael said...

There is no question this was not obscenity. There is a contextual reading of obscenity, and to be obscenity "the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." Almost no music or mainstream film could be found obscene because of this element. The PBS question was about indecency. There really is no clear contextual exception for indecency and it is really just a question of what an "average" viewer would see as patently offensive. See my blog post on this where I quote the cases and provide a link to the regulations--

6:47 PM  
Blogger Perfect Sound Forever said...

Thanks Michael. I guess the problem I have is that the FCC or Congress feels that they can always authoritatively say what is offensive to the 'average' viewer. I honestly don't think they have a realistic idea of what they really would mean.

7:53 PM  

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