Monday, March 20, 2006


FCC'ing Hell

I see that the FCC, the American television censors, have just fined CBS affiliates $4.1 million - pause to let that figure sink in - for just two 'obscene' programmes, and have also addressed complaints about 50 different shows from a period of three years (Feb '02 - Mar '05).

The number of complainants seems to be rising almost exponentially:

'Mr Martin [new head of the FCC] on Wednesday said the number of complaints received by the FCC had risen year after year, from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. "The number of programmes that trigger these complaints continues to increase as well. I share the concerns of the public - and of parents, in particular - that are voiced in these complaints." Last year the FCC received more than 230,000 complaints.'

The real reason for the rise is, of course, not that American network television has suddenly become a visual Sodom - almost all network TV looks incredibly tame by European, and even British, standards - but because of organisations like the Parents Television Council, a ludicrous pressure group who have managed to create a ComplainBot which can be filled in an infinite number of times. What's more, surprise surprise, it doesn't require the complainant to have actually seen the programme. We certainly shouldn't be shocked - the FCC gave FOX a fine for 'Married By America' ('sexually suggestive')on the basis of complaints by just three people, despite the show already having been cancelled.

The programme with the largest fine this time around is 'Without A Trace', a CBS detective drama. The scene that so exercised the censors contained a depiction of an 'orgy' with teenage participants, but that hardly presents a full picture. The sex isn't properly shown, all you see is artfully lit distance shots of people bouncing up and down a bit, and the FCC itself admits that the scene contains 'no nudity.' What is more, the participants are the bad guys of the programme, as the Parents Television Council themselves admit:

'This episode’s theme does not glorify or glamorize teen orgies or promiscuity; quite the opposite. Viewers see first-hand how relationships and lives are destroyed by this reckless behavior. But CBS crossed a line by depicting teens in such sexually provocative situations. What’s even more disturbing is that CBS chose the holiday season to re-air this most graphic and gross episode of debauchery.'

So not only is the scene not sexually explicit, it also serves a social function. In point of fact, it could well be argued that the scene is inherently moralistic in tone. Fortunately, thanks to the prurient Parents Television Council, whose interest in sex is more than a little reminiscent of TV evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart, who busily declaim sex in public while clearly enjoying it a bit too much in private, we can see the scene in question (halfway down, in a red box with the moniker 'WARNING: Graphic Content, Please Take Caution).

Hardly the stuff of revolutions, is it? It certainly doesn't require a $3.6 million fine. Now, a pause for a moment, while I make a disclaimer. On this blog, I have, in the past, mostly limited myself to discussing British censorship issues. The reason for this is that I don't really wish to tread on other people's toes - it may be that most Americans are completely happy with a regulator that can levy a massive fine for a scene barely a minute long, shown after ten o'clock at night, which contains no actual objectionable content. However, I don't believe this to be the case. It is my belief that organisations like the Parents Television Council do not begin to represent mainstream American opinion. 'Without A Trace' itself gets over 20 million viewers, an astounding number given the choice of channels available. From this, and from the high viewing figures of dramas like 'The Sopranos' on cable, I draw the conclusion that actually, most American adults enjoy watching well made programming for adults. Of course, this can be accessed on cable, which the FCC can do nothing about. However, the real question is, why should it have to be?

Some of the other verdicts are ridiculous. Amongst them was an affirmation of a fine for the Janet Jackson nipslip, possibly the least-important-event-with-most-importance-attached-to-it of the last century. Also in trouble was 'The Surreal Life 2', for a scene containing pixellated breasts. Have you ever watched 'The Surreal Life'? It's got to be amongst the least controversial programming I've ever watched. The idea that anyone could actually be offended by anything other than how bad the programmme is generally is baffling.

Some of the verdicts, however, are worse than ridiculus, and are actually troubling. For instance, for the first time in decades, the FCC have ruled that the words 'fuck' and 'shit' are actually profane. They are completely beyond bounds, as shown by the FCC's censoring of a PBS documentary 'The Blues: Godfathers And Sons.' That is, completely beyond bounds, except when they aren't - 'Saving Private Ryan' was exempted from the rule because of what an 'important' piece of cinema it is. They showed a double standard again when fining Howard Stern for discussing anal sex on his radio show, but decided that Oprah Winfrey doing the same thing was 'educational.' As Jeff Jarvis points out:

'Note then how the FCC has now put itself in the position of being not only our national nanny but our cultural critic laureate as well. They decide what is art worthy of protection and what is not. They decide what is good enough.'

The Parents Television Council have a webpage where they list programmes they feel are beyond the pale. Their 'Worst' list reads like a 'What To Watch' list. Congratulations are especially due to Seth McFarlane, the creator of both 'Family Guy' and 'American Dad', programmes which have managed to be in the 'worst' column six times in just over a year (5 for FG, 1 for AD). It is worth noting, for fairness' sake, that the FCC rejected complaints made about content in both 'Family Guy' and 'The Simpsons', once again showing the ludicrous situation that for grown-up programming on network TV, American adults have to watch cartoons.

Seeing as I'm discussing it now, it is worth leaving the final word to 'Family Guy', specifically the rather pertinent episode 'PTV', in which Peter sets up his own TV station, only for the FCC to shut it down, causing this song:

'They will clean up all your talking in a menace such as this
They will make you take a tinkle when you want to take a piss
And they’ll make you call fellatio a trouser-friendly kiss
It’s the plain situation!
There's no negiotiation!
With the fellows at the freakin FCC!'

'They’re as stuffy as the stuffiest of the special interest groups
Make a joke about your bowels and they order in the troops
Any baby with a brain could tell them everybody poops!
Take a tip, take a lesson!
You’ll never win by messin’
With the fellas at the freakin’ FCC!'

'And if you find yourself with some you sexy thing
You’re gonna have to do her with your ding-a-ling
Cause you can’t say penis!'

'So they sent this little warning they’re prepared to do the worst
And they stuck it in your mailbox hoping you could be co-erced
I can think of quite another place they should have stuck it first!
They may just be neurotic
Or possible psychotic
They’re the fellas at the freakin FCC!'


Fucking hell, the FCC under our current puritan administration is a wonder of intolerance and prudishness.
I wonder why these blue-ballers don't get in bed with the Taliban. They have a lot in common.

The stupidest thing about our censorship? It only has a problem with sex. Violence is, as always, considered a safe alternative to all this having-fun-with-our-privates.
most American adults enjoy watching well made programming for adults.
And that's the nub of the issue, isn't? For whatever reasons (in my head conservative evangelicalism) has a desire to treat adults as children.
The fact that they then set themselves up as arbiters of taste highlights their patronsing parental attitude even more.

I do find it bizarre that American television's only substantial regulation is moral, rather than, as we have, educational/cultural inclusiveness. Any old dross so long as you don't show anything approaching Real Life; teenagers shagging, adults swearing... And to be fined for it? Pathetic.

Bizarre set of institutions.
I don't think too many people'd disagree with you here: $4.1 million is an awful lot of money and where does it go?
performance related pay for the regulators?
counselling for those upset by the program?

besides which; you'd have to be a bit of a case to actually /write/ a letter to the watchdog: think of the effort...
you'd have to get off the sofa...
find some paper...
find a biro...
...with ink in it...
find the address...
write the letter...
find an envelope...
and a stamp...
and then actually remember to post the thing.

Any fill-in-the-gaps letters shouldn't count as a complaint.
SafeT - Good point. It's noticeable that, while the 'orgy' (ha!) is completely beyond bounds at 10, someone having their head blown off on CSI an hour earlier is totally acceptable.

It's also noticeable that the new FCC chairman, a Republican, (mind you, so was his predecessor) has been so pro-active with this, as the administration has produced un-ending laws cracking down on obscenity, which I've written about before.

Matt C - There is indeed an air of condescension about it, as there always is with censorship, particularly when it's as intrusive as this.

It is difficult to get a balance between keeping the same rules for everyone and still taking context into consideration, and I appreciate the difficulty they have in this area, but the over-riding impression from the examples here is that you are more likely to get off the more powerful you are.

MattyG - Absolutely. I am a firm believer that anyone who merely sends in a fill-in-the-blanks form was therefore not sufficiently bothered by the programme to have their complaint taken seriously, and they should therefore be discounted. It would be easy for any American citizen to fill that ComplainBot in, and as I said, it doesn't require having actually seen the programme, as PTV tell you elsewhere on their site what exactly you should be offended by in each programme.
Magnificent post Steve. I heard about this the other day listening to Penn Jillette ranting about it onhis radio show.

Download it here

Penn reckoned that this fine might be some sort of tipping point. He reckoned it requires a $1,000,000 to take a case to the Supreme Court and that while funes have been in the few thousand dollars range it's not been in the networks' interest to do anything but pay up. Now there's so much money at stake going to the Supreme Court could be worthwile. What's that bit about "Congress shall make no law..." and throw the FCC's complaint and hopefully their organisation out on their heiney, as they are wont to say over there.
And again here:
The Bedford Diaries, on the WB network, was due to air with girls kissing and a female character opening her jeans.

But Mr Levinson, who is producing the show, said some scenes had been cut for fear of being fined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Also, after reading the description of the 'orgy' scene at work I wanted to check out the footage that suposedly included:
- Two other teenaged girls are sitting on either side of a teenaged boy, fondling him while another group of teens smoking pot and drinking beer watch them from the sofa on the other side of the room.
- A teenaged boy takes turns kissing two girls in their underwear.
- In another room, a girl is sitting on the floor surrounded by several boys. One of her friends yells, “She’s a porn star!” The girl on the floor is wearing a bra and panties.

That sounded absolutely pukka. Got home downloaded. What a disappointment. Fucking prudes have imagined most of that. The lighting and camera movement obscures anything that's remotely meaningful, instead effectively communicating a scene without being particularly graphic or exploitative.

These fundies need to learn to watch whats on the screen rather than their imaginations (which are probably filled with horrible repressed thoughts that make the teen orgy look like a polite tea party).
Mark - Thanks very much for the link. That's the first time I've listened to Internet radio and really enjoyed it - good to hear some righteous ranting on a subject I care about!

I think his point is entirely reasonable. Under any sort of measure of freedom of speech, these actions are highly unconstitutional. In just the last fifteen years, the Supreme Court has found in favour of a white man burning a cross on his lawn to force a black man to leave the neighbourhood (RAV v St Paul, 1992). I appreciate this is political speech, and that that is where the notional difference lies. Still, I maintain that in a rational world, that is far less desirable than seeing a 'teen orgy' - and I refuse to use the word 'orgy' without scare quotes because, in my humble opinion, you can't have an orgy without people having sex, which is patently not happening, and not even really being simulated, in the clip.

Matt - Exactly. The salacious descriptions of content on that PTV site bear little reality to the actual content of programming. I seem to recall a column written by their president Brent Bozell at the time of the NFL advert with 'Desperate Housewives' Nicolette Sheridan dropping her towel in front of Terrell Owens, that you could see her naked. Well, no. Actually - and you men may all want to place yourself firmly under the desks here, so as not to show off that unsightly erection - you could see - ready? - the backs of her bare shoulders. Oh, the backs of her shins as well.

Fucking hell, I have such a raging hard on.
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