For many years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has held sway over broadcast networks, restricting what they are allowed to say and show in the name of decency. A Supreme Court ruling in 1978 (FCC vs. Pacific, regarding George Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words”) established the FCC’s ability to impose fines and restrictions over content deemed obscene, profane, or otherwise indecent. Currently the FCC allows indecent language, but only in a “safe harbor” between 10 P.M. and 6 A.M. (as the Supreme Court has held that indecent speech on TV is protected, but can be restricted to certain times). Now the major networks are asking the restrictions be lifted, under the argument that the rules have been made obsolete, and broadcast networks have been steadily losing viewership to “cable” networks (note: while many viewers use satellite or other means, I’m referring to any network beyond the local affiliates as cable networks, per tradition.)
“Loosen the rules because we’re losing business” is a bit of a weak argument on the face of it, especially as the big four own most of the cable networks they’re “competing” with anyway. But the more I think about it, the more I start to think FOX, et al, have something of a point.
As a general rule, government agencies in the U.S. aren’t supposed to be in the business of restricting freedom of speech (though the line on obscenity has always been vague at best). The FCC has historically been allowed to do so in the case of broadcast networks because of the way they are broadcast. Specifically, the FCC is considered the owner of the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that broadcast television signals are sent over (and essentially lease it to the networks), and thus they are considered to have the right to restrict what is and isn’t aired. It’s the same basic reasoning as why your local newspaper doesn’t have to print your four-page editorial on lizard people; just as freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns the specific printing press, freedom of speech is considered restrictable by the people who own the medium that speech is going out over.
But the FCC themselves are not hurt in the slightest by indecency; these restrictions are meant to protect the viewers. Which raises the question of what the practical differences are for the viewers; i.e., why is FOX restricted from saying swear words while HBO isn’t? There are only a few basic differences for broadcast networks vs. cable networks. The first, and arguably the most important one for non-decency-related issues, is that broadcast networks are comprised of numerous local affiliates, while cable stations are more monolithic. Every metropolitan area has its own ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX, but there’s no “local” A&E, HBO, or Comedy Central. (They do often have East Coast/West Coast feeds, but these merely duplicate the content with a three-hour time shift). The “network” part of broadcast networks means that local stations often air some form of local programming, most particularly (and often only) the local news. But the FCC is unlikely to notice in most cases if a local network has a momentary slip of indecency, so it’s probably not the local content that is responsible for the restrictions. (I’ll also note that the FCC hasn’t had a very good track record lately of their other major job regarding local networks, that of preventing a localized monopoly. They just rubber-stamped a corporate takeover in my town that, thanks to one of the other stations outsourcing their local news, will leave us with only two news sources over four stations. But I digress.)
So if it’s probably not the local content that justifies the restriction, we have to consider the technological difference. The broadcast networks are broadcast over the air and received through antennae. Except they usually aren’t. An estimated 90.4% of Americans pay for a subscription TV service, be it through cable, satellite, or telecom. Of the remaining 9.6%, a portion is believed to be using broadband internet in conjunction with services such as Hulu and Netflix to get their television fix. For the vast, overwhelming majority of Americans, NBC is viewed in exactly the same manner as HBO; in terms of how it works, it’s indistinguishable. There’s only a difference for people who can’t, or won’t, pay for a television subscription. Those who won’t are obviously not a concern; if they’re not watching, they’re not affected by indecency. And the alternative, that the FCC has decided that the poor need to be protected from foul language, is so comical that I am forced to believe that’s not the reasoning either.
The other possible difference is simple geography. Because the broadcast networks are localized, they’re in the same time zone as the viewer (barring some people who have distant networks grandfathered in on satellite services). This means that the actual “safe harbor” for the network coincides with the scheduled “safe harbor” for the viewer, which isn’t guaranteed with cable networks, even if they adhere to the principle. I heard the word “apeshit” used on Longmire a few days ago, and even though A&E airs the program at 10:00 PM (in the “safe harbor”), that’s not when I was watching. I’m in the Pacific Time Zone, and subscribe to satellite, so I get an east coast feed; hence, I saw it at 7:00 PM, which would be outside the “safe harbor” if it were a network. So modern technology and subscriber services would muck with the timing rules if the same standards were applied to cable networks, rendering them moot. But “cable networks are exempt because of the rotation of the Earth” doesn’t seem like a good reason to restrict broadcast networks either.
But that leaves us devoid of practical differences between broadcast and cable networks beyond “The FCC restricts content because they are allowed to”. OK, so they can. But should they?
One quote that’s been making the rounds in news articles on this issue comes from Tim Winter of the Parents Television Council: “[FOX] has aired scripted animated programs featuring a man masturbating a horse, a character eating excrement out of a baby’s diaper, and a baby eating a bowl of semen, just to name a few. Ask just about anyone who doesn’t get compensated by the broadcast networks and they’ll tell you that these scenes are patently offensive. […] The American people (those without armies of lobbyists) are concerned about the volume of indecent material on TV that is targeting their children and grandchildren.” I have a few issues with this statement, and not just because I’m unclear why so much attention is being given to a group that is appointed by nobody, accountable to nobody, and represents nobody. Granted, I’m not a parent myself, but none of the parents I’ve known have ever mentioned being approached for membership or asked their opinions.
But let’s pretend for a minute that their opinion is important. There are still several problems with the statement. The first is Winter’s focus on animated programs, which rather disturbingly implies that he’d be perfectly OK with watching these things happen in live-action. But looking at the end we see the comment about it “targeting children”, and the meaning becomes clear: Winter believes that because a show is animated, it must be for kids. This is a childish fallacy, of course. Family Guy is not aimed at children any more than cable shows South Park or Robot Chicken… or any non-animated adult show. As adults-only drawings have existed as long as drawing itself, it’s just plain stupid to assume that drawings on TV are automatically “targeting children” when this isn’t true for any other medium.
There’s also an insulting assumption on the part of Winter’s assertions about people agreeing it’s offensive. Now granted, yes, I do find that content offensive. That’s part of why I don’t watch Family Guy and its ilk (the main reason, however, is the ineptness of it, which the FCC has no control over). But I can change the channel. Just because I don’t think FOX should air the show doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be allowed to. Lots of people are allowed to do things I think they shouldn’t do. It’s part of the way humanity works. Winter’s blanket assumption that everybody agrees with him unless they’re a marketing tool is both insulting and idiotic. Whether I like the shows or not, the fact of the matter is they’re still on after several years because advertisers keep lining up to pay for them… which they wouldn’t do if they weren’t pulling in the ratings. Lots of people watch these shows. They can’t all be compensated by FOX (that isn’t how economics works). They obviously enjoy the content despite (or because of) the offensiveness of it. If they didn’t, they would change the channel as I do. I’ll also note that it’s comical for the PTC to say they represent people “without armies of lobbyists” when a: those people aren’t consulted and b: the PTC is the largest source of complaints to the FCC (i.e., they’re a lobbyist organization).
But ultimately, the most damning thing about Winter’s complaint is that it’s self-defeating. To put it as bluntly as possible, if FOX can show or imply a character eating shit, we’ve taken a flying leap over the point where we can claim to be shocked by them saying “shit”. The word is nothing but noise without the meaning, and the FCC is apparently OK with the meaning being shown. So why censor the word?
I can think of no justifiable reason. The FCC doesn’t need to protect adults, I think we all (save perhaps Mr. Winter) can agree. That leaves children. The networks argue that parents can control what their children watch… and they’re right. Parents can and should be in charge of what their children are exposed to. It isn’t the FCC’s place to usurp that, and in this day and age, they can’t even be said to be helping. Approximately 90% of households have access to cable stations, so if we assume an even distribution (a statistically sound assumption), approximately 90% of children can watch non-FCC-regulated content if their parents aren’t exercising control over what they watch. A child is no more likely to learn the word “shit” if they see it on A&E than if they see it on NBC (which notably got an exemption to use the word once for ER). If the cable box provides both CBS and HBO, naked breasts wouldn’t cause any more problems for a parent on one channel than on the other. Violence doesn’t magically become more disturbing just because it’s on ABC instead of Starz.
Parents already have to pick and choose what their children watch, and they have the tools to do so. Parental controls were added to televisions back in 1999; these controls are literally older than all but a few current children (and those children which are older than the V-chip are in high school, an age when parents typically start relaxing rules so the child can learn to exercise their own judgment). All television shows produced today come with ratings that establish who the target age is, and what content to be wary of; it’s clearer than movie ratings, which aren’t exactly hard to follow. Any parent who is remotely aware of what’s going on can get a good idea whether a show is appropriate for their child at even a cursory glance, to say nothing of the age-old practice of screening the content themselves. They don’t need the FCC’s help on four channels out of a hundred.
All of which means that there seems to be no strong justification for the FCC to maintain these restrictions and fines. Perhaps it would be appropriate for the FCC to fine a network for showing “indecency” in a show that advertised a TV-G rating, but a general network-wide restriction seems entirely unnecessary.