November 18, 2004

Live Wire

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The guidelines that qualify entertainment indecent, and therefore susceptible to censorship, are becoming more and more unclear. In the last couple of years, television, film, music and other forms of entertainment have been breaking old boundaries, sliding past FCC regulations, and hitting the mainstream with a bang. While there has always been controversy over what is too “vulgar” or immoral, for the most part, this country has been progressing in allowing certain viewpoints to be heard. (I stress this country, because other countries don’t have such strict censorship regulations; they solve the problem by airing pretty much everything.) This progress came to a screeching halt last January when Janet Jackson’s right nipple was exposed during the Super Bowl half-time show. All hell broke loose after the “costume mishap,” and since then the FCC has been cracking down on the major television networks. However, this strict treatment of inappropriate material is not consistent. Just recently, ABC affiliates refused to air the film Saving Private Ryan for Veterans’ Day for fear that the unedited film could leave them vulnerable to FCC fines. According to FCC guidelines, networks are not allowed to run programs with inappropriate or offensive material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. In this particular case, affiliates are forbidden to bleep or edit parts of Saving Private Ryan because of a clause in Steven Spielberg’s contract. Here’s the catch: many major networks have aired Ryan in the past, but due to the recent events regarding censorship, networks are in a quandary over what they should or should not be putting on television, hoping to avoid conflict with the FCC.

While networks are refusing to air an Oscar-winning film due to bad language and graphic battle scenes, there are television shows and performers that cause similar controversy, yet they get aired. Where can we draw the line in this censorship battle? How do we evaluate what is “vulgar” or “inappropriate” and what is “decent”? The highly acclaimed new show Desperate Housewives is a primetime soap opera focused almost entirely on sex, intrigue,and vicious secrets. How is this show any “better” than a violent film? Additionally, scantily clad pop singers capture twelve year-old audiences strutting on stage wearing bras and humping their back-up dancers. Thirteen year-old singer Jojo belts out lyrics about love and heartbreak and she’s still in middle school.

It seems that the FCC is just as confused about the gray line between acceptable and unacceptable as we are. When Janet Jackson’s breast accidentally flew out of her top last year it was something that could not be controlled. The only way to prevent it from happening again, they think, is to prevent certain films from primetime television, or to establish five-second delays on live events. But what exactly are they protecting us from? I can walk down the street and see some girl’s ass in my face because she decided to wear a short skirt on a windy night, but there’s no five-second delay on life. I understand that the networks want to protect their viewers and they don’t want to be fined by the FCC, but do they have a right to censor things that we see all of the time anyway, or things that are simply part of life? Should they be constrained to shows that are fake and not indicative of reality? Shouldn’t it be up to the viewer’s discretion to decide what is inappropriate for them and their children? If the FCC plans to establish guidelines for networks, they must obliterate the blurry gray line that now exists between what is acceptable and what is vulgar. Yet, I also think that they should consider what is really worth addressing; perhaps they should ignore a couple swears in a great film, and tackle something a little more important.

Archived article by Amanda Hodes