It's time for all decent Americans to proudly demand censorship of the public television airwaves.
Yes, I said "censorship." Demand it. Insist that Congress pass laws providing for it. Fight to sustain those laws in every court in the land. Censor the television networks, and censor them hard. And yes, this means going so far as to test Supreme Court precedent on "prior restraint."
The problem is that the public airwaves are filled with filth. Utter, complete filth, at all hours of the day. Raunchy humor. Constant references to and depictions of sex. Foul language. Graphic violence -- not of the sheriff-shoots-outlaw, outlaw-falls-from-horse variety, which is perfectly fine, but instead of the sort that involves explicit gore, blood and guts sprayed all over the screen.
The public has the right to insist that those few pieces of the broadcast spectrum owned in common are reserved for content appropriate for all ages, or at the very least that objectionable content be strictly -- and I do mean strictly -- limited to late-night hours.
The simple fact is that with modern technology, almost every American today has access to more than a hundred viewing choices at any one time without needing to watch regular network TV. Censorship of the publicly owned airwaves would not keep cable or satellite TV from running just about anything under the sun. Individual, adult citizens would not be kept from watching whatever they want. But parents could be assured that, if they so desire, their children could watch traditional TV (the UHF and VHF spectrum) without fear of being exposed to a world where every odd moment revolves around sex, where adultery is commonplace, and where what once was considered foul language is routine.
A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO I turned on the TV a few minutes ahead of time for something I wanted to watch (probably a basketball game, but I don't remember). In the scene occurring right then on the sit-com that preceded the game, a man was greeted in his kitchen by a housekeeper older than he, and he immediately commenced to tell her about having sex with some woman the previous night who wept after the act. Some other grown man came into the room as the second man's late-middle-aged mother came in the front door, calling her son "sweetie," and immediately announced to her son that "your mother is gonna get laid tonight."
I left the room for a minute or two and returned to find the fictional son in bed with a blonde woman whose breast was falling almost completely out of her nightgown. And then, off camera, the woman's husband arrived home, necessitating the "hero" to escape, in just his boxer shorts, through a window. It turned out that the hero's mother was a real estate agent, the husband was her client, and the mother had lured the grown son into bed with the blonde (who the son knew was married) in order to break up the blonde's marriage so that the blonde's husband would sell the house, thus giving the mother another house to put on the market to profit from.
And this was on "family hour." And, although played for laughs, it wasn't remotely funny. It was just stupid, and puerile. Every single verbal exchange, with every single character, involved sex, with marital status no moral obstacle. And it was offensive -- offensive for a grown man to talk with his mother about her plans for casual sex, and for another to talk with his housekeeper about his own sexploits. All of it was presented as just a slightly and humorously manic representation of ordinary, everyday life -- all at an hour when any eight-year-old in the country could be watching it, unfiltered. And it was par for the course on "prime time" TV. Just about two decades ago, the top-rated programs were utterly family friendly fare such as The Cosby Show. Now, though, it is almost impossible to find any sit-com that revolves around anything other than sex, with fairly young teens and the most senior of citizens included among those who can't seem to think or talk about anything else.
A study released last fall by the Parents Television Council found that "children watching television during the first hour of prime time are assaulted by violence, profanity or sexual content once every 3.5 minutes of non-commercial airtime. During the 2006-2007 study period, almost 90% of the 208 television shows reviewed contained objectionable content." Also, "During the Family Hour, viewers have been exposed to visual depictions and verbal references to sexual content including partial nudity and pixilated nudity, adultery, oral sex, masturbation, pornography, anal sex, incest, violence, and a plethora of curse words."
And in just the five years since the previous such study, "the PTC found that incidences of sexual and violent content have increased by 22.1% and 52.4%, respectively."
One example: During the "family hour" on April 10 on NBC's show "30 Rock," mothers on MILF Island (Mothers I'd Like to F***) competed for the attention of 8th Grade boys. Losers had to remove their bikini tops and throw them in a fire.
IN AN INTERVIEW Tuesday afternoon, PTC President Tim Winter told me that "certain words that never were considered part of the dialogue for prime time telecast ten years ago are now used freely without even a raised eyebrow from the writers and broadcast producers." Words such as pi**, di**, cr**, bit**, and a** are now commonplace, he said, noting that the first one (technically referring to urination) at one point was one of the "seven words" in comedian George Carlin's routine about the words nobody could say on the air.
Through the Federal Communications Commission, Congress does have the power (and the right, and quite arguably the responsibility) to regulate all this.
"Most of the public airwaves are licensed for a fee," Winter said. 'But broadcast television and broadcast radio are unique in that they are offered [to the broadcasters] for free, although by some estimates they are worth about half a trillion dollars. As part of their licenses the broadcasters are required to serve the public interest. The 1934 communications act creating the FCC used the term 'public interest' more than 100 times in defining how the airwaves are to be used....Part of the statute is the requirement for the broadcaster to abide by the indecency laws."
Unless I missed something somewhere, the Supreme Court has not considered a broadcast decency case in about 30 years -- but last month it agreed to hear Fox v. FCC, in which the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the FCC out of line for sanctioning Fox for allowing the airing of the "F-word" and the "S-word" during the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards shows. The Bush administration, rightly, has asked the high court to overturn that appeals court's ruling.
Frankly, though, live events ought to be the least of Congress' worries. An unexpected expletive aired by a musician (or an athlete such as Tiger Woods) is less objectionable than the pre-planned use of vulgarities, fairly explicit depictions of sex, and gratuitous, gore-filled violence. And with so many avenues other than the public broadcast spectrum now open for "artistic expression," any efforts by Congress to substantially tighten the restrictions on the public airwaves would put very little obstacle in the way of people who want to produce more "adult-oriented" entertainment. (Frankly, though, today's TV network obsession with sex and foul language is far less adult than it is adolescent, as if TV writers and actors never quite matured beyond the emotional age of 15. That's also why the Hollywood writers' strike was in some senses far more a public blessing than it was a curse.)
IT IS WORTH NOTING that, in most cases, the TV networks themselves can't even claim that stricter regulations would deny their "free expression." As was noted by PTC president Winter, a lawyer and former executive at NBC, "Most broadcast networks own the cable networks they 'compete' against."
And, he added, "The courts have said that the public airwaves are so uniquely pervasive, such that any child can access them at almost any time, that there are certain restrictions that can be put in place."
To be clear, the courts have also ruled that while regulation of expression, through sanctions for violations, is allowed, "prior restraint" of any expression, even of the most heinous sort, is unconstitutional. And Winter emphatically rejects that option anyway.
But I don't. I do not see how the Constitution forbids Congress to do anything it wants, short of regulating political expression (a different subject entirely, on which Congress certainly should never tread!), to protect the public from indecency in the relatively limited spectrum of which the public enjoys common ownership. Let the cable outfits produce whatever the market will bear. But keep the publicly owned realm free of smut, at least before 10 p.m., so our children walking past a stray TV set in a mall somewhere won't be moved to ask us, "Hey, Daddy, why is that naked man in bed with that other man's wife, and what does it mean to get laid, and why did he just call her a bit**?"
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