The Supreme Court recently put another nail in the coffin of network television, with an assist from the Federal Communications Commission.
That came April 28, when the Court upheld the FCC’s “Fleeting Expletives” rule that threatens broadcasters with fines over the use of even one curse word on live television, no matter the circumstances.
The justices were ruling on cases involving celebrity types (Cher, Nicole Richie and Bono) uttering single expletives in the middle of otherwise innocuous comments about winning awards.
Perhaps realizing just how close this rule comes to violating the First Amendment, they wrote six separate opinions totaling 69 pages. These were filled with language that skirted the constitutional question without ever addressing it. The only definitive thing they did besides uphold (for now) the law was to throw out a ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York that had previously found in favor of a Fox Television-led challenge to this regulation.
Thus, in the name of doing what Justice Anton Scalia called “giving conscientious parents a relatively safe haven for their children,” the high court and the FCC ensured that network television’s creative slide would continue. They also maintained an absurd status quo that ultimately doesn’t validate either the FCC’s or conservative court justices’ claims of halting the expansion of vulgarity and filth throughout the culture.
Anyone who watches more than 20 minutes a day of cable/satellite television or takes a brief stroll through the Internet will attest that, unfortunately, our society already has lost that battle. The language that’s allowed on the message boards of Web sites for many major newspapers makes a mockery of the notion this rule has somehow helped curb obscenity and profanity.
Basic cable stations such as USA Network or TNT generally try to keep things pretty mild during the daytime and early prime hours, but there are no time frame restrictions on what you’ll see or hear on HBO, Showtime, The Movie Channel or Cinemax. Likewise, for all the great music programs on satellite radio, there are shows on the talk channels where the proliferation of four-letter words is frequent and stunning.
Meanwhile network television programmers (and for that matter radio stations) are facing the mandates of advertisers that they present relevant, hip shows that will attract young people, yet they’re hampered by content and language restrictions which don’t affect their competition.
It has resulted in absurd situations, with shows like Southland inserting numerous four-letter words into the script, then bleeping them out in a silly procedure that’s turned an otherwise potentially good cop show into a joke.
The network executives rightly carp that it’s not the FCC’s job, or the job of any government entity, to be program censors, and that parents must take control of the sets in their own homes. They point to the presence of unused parental locks on most current television sets and openly wonder why groups like the Parents Television Council should be influencing an entire nation’s programming based on their narrow views and beliefs.
They note that the last time they voluntarily instituted a Family Viewing Hour in 1975 the courts tossed it out two years later.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to have much sympathy for network broadcasters because they’ve largely abandoned the principles that made television great in the 1950s, ‘60s, and much of the ‘70s. Concepts like offering a wide range of shows for different audiences, providing regular public service programming and reserving hours for shows devoted to children have been sacrificed in exchange for blind rule by demographics and the embrace of cheap, sensationalistic fare.
Still, that’s no excuse for the imposition of unconstitutional rules in a vain attempt at recreating the sensibility of a bygone era. Indeed, the only way innovative, truly creative types will even consider network television again is for NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and The CW to enjoy the same freedoms as HBO and Showtime.
There’s little doubt they would abuse it as much as the others already do, but that gets us back to the real issue, parental responsibility. Being a parent has never been an easy job, and it’s even tougher today in the age of technological explosion, multiple media platforms, and the 24/7 spiel of nonstop information.
However, government shouldn’t try to make the task easier by putting unworkable and unconstitutional restrictions on media.
Wynn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org