Friday, April 15, 2005

What's the right balance of media filth?

Someday, many years from now, you might fondly recall with your kids or grandkids (if you can shout past all the logos swimming their brain) how much more interesting, lively and open the media landscape was before the FCC and Congress decided that they should be overlord nanny for us in the U.S.. By then, you might be so jadded or defeated that you won't be able to recall it anymore yourself.

Among the many warning signs now, fines for 'indecent' broadcasts have now been increased fifty-fold and now, the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 is making the rounds in the legislature- this proposes fines not just for the broadcaster but also for the people themsevles who perform any unacceptible acts (which would have included Janet Jackson and her breast). One of the few voices of reason, Representative Jerrold Nadler had this to say to his collegues: "I certainly don't propose to deliver a stirring defense of indecent programming. In fact, like many Americans, I exercise my right not to view programming I find offensive by using that miracle of modern technology: the remote control." But Nadler isn't optimist about reason taking hold of the Congress: Nadler: Indecency Bill Could Pass.

As if these pumped up fines aren't good enough, the specter of jail time is now also being considered for infractors, with the blessings of both Democrats and Republicans as we hear in Salon's Indecency wars article. If that wasn't bad enough, even the Democrats on the FCC were mad at former chairman Michael Powell (a flip-flopping, pandering wimp and coward) because he didn't punish media offenders enough. Even top rated shows like Friends aren't necessarily off the hook, leaving you to wonder what's going to be left to watch if all the fines get inforced as dictated by that the biggest complainers, the Parents Television Council (who seem to write FCC policy more and more nowadays). Maybe they're get what they want and we can not only arrests and jail time Janet and both of her breasts but also public flogging and stockades just to keep them happy and make sure that we're giving the right message to the kiddies.

How much of this will actually be necessarily is debatable not just because broadcasters self-censor themselves out of fear of indiscrimately imposed fines but also because they themselves have another kind of brickwall when it comes to decency issues. A fascinating article in the Chicago Tribune (Jackson case just too much of a trial) documents how some media outlets are squeamish about broadcasting some of the more lurid details about the Michael Jackson trial. It's not that there's some kind of overaching moralist policy in place but that they don't think their audience would dig the gory details. As the head of CNN put it: "It just gets a little too close to the bone and strips away all the celebrity and sensationalism and turns it into something grotesque." In English, that means that they're worried about the fine line they have to tread between feeding peoples' interest in celebrity scandal without totally grossing them out and turning them off.

Which is to say that other than seeing a political barrier which could cost them their licenese, broadcasters also see a financial barrier that could cost them ratings (and ad revenue). The question then is if this is enough to hem themselves in without any political pressure. Along with reading the tea leaves that they see in ratings, part of their job is to figure out what the viewer or listening public wants and in this case, what they don't want.

It would be interesting to find out what these perceived limits of decency are as seen by broadcasters and how they're applied but with the legislature proceeding as it is, we may never know or find out. We'll be told what they are and have to live with the consequences. Personally, if I had to chose between broadcasters and legislatures deciding what I watch or hear, I'd go with their former- their pandering to high-dollar companies is more palatable and their version of the lowest common denominator is much more respectable than what we're finding in Washington nowadays.


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