Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Censure the Censors

A dark day that has been brewing since the mammary shot seen around the world is upon us. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist, under pressure from the Parents Television Council, will "hotline" a bill which, if it passes, will increase fines for television/radio networks and stations to more than 15 times their current level, and probably lead performers and networks to self-censor to the extreme which may be detrimental to all involved.

Now, I must admit that I do have a bias on this issue, so my line of what is and is not appropriate for public consumption is probably a bit farther out there than what the community standard is, but I don't think the aims of the PTC are entirely in sync with the actual community standards of the North American audience, and I am not really comfortable with the idea that a very small group of people can prevent me and a wider group in the community from enjoying and informing ourselves through a public medium. I can appreciate the fact that they, like many other groups, want to reduce the amount of swearing and, in their minds, questionable content, but I think the measure they are supporting is not the way to do it. Fear, while a powerful deterrent, is not always the best method for getting an individual or industry to change its practices.

The argument for increased fines is that since the networks and their parent companies have so much money, the fines that are currently being given out are not sufficient enough to change the way they do things. However, since fines are levied at not only the parent companies but the individual stations that run content, the new fines could basically cripple a small market station, making them have to choose their content a lot more wisely. This behavior was evident surrounding the showing of Saving Private Ryan uncut on ABC affiliates a few years ago for Veterans Day, as many of those station directors were afraid of the consequences of doing so, despite the fact that in the years before the Janet Jackson incident, they had shown the movie uncut without repercussion. If fines are boosted to the half-million dollar mark, more stations will probably refuse to show network programming, despite its social or historical context, much more often.

Or something even worse could happen.

I am reminded of one of the early episodes of South Park, where the school was going to put on a Christmas play, but because so many people complained about its content, whether it was the portrayal of Jesus, the secular elements like Santa and Frosty or other things which they found offensive, the school was forced to put on a bland, boring piece of interpretive dance. I fear that may be what becomes of network television. In an effort to avoid offending anyone, the networks will try to avoid controversy or anything which could arouse the complaints of anyone... well, aside from complaints of boredom. Of course, cable television will continue to push the envelope and perhaps gain from such a move, as writers associated with more mainstream efforts on the traditional networks may jump ship to work in a less-compromising environment. Of course, since many of these cable networks also share the same parent company as the broadcast networks, this course of action may turn out to be fortuitous.

The president of PTC doesn't see things in this light. "Why does [Commerce Committee Chairman] Sen. Stevens want to be known as the one who refused to raise fines against multibillion-dollar corporations that routinely violate common-sense decency standards with offensive material?" My question is, why would he want to be known as the one who perhaps crippled the entire television industry? Let Frist, who wants to be a presidential candidate in 2008, take that hit.

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