- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

These are confusing and contradictory times for folks who like their entertainment less than decent. Just when they thought they were out of the woods, Smokey the Bear comes running after them, brandishing obscenity laws and community standards.

On the one hand: The late comedian Lenny Bruce was finally pardoned by the state of New York for an obscenity charge that today seems a joke, and an unfunny one, at that.

Also, opening today in select theaters is Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” the first NC-17-rated movie (in simpler times, they called it X) that a Motion Picture Association of America member studio has distributed in six years.

It contains incestuous sex, threesomes and male frontal nudity, oh my! Thankfully, the latter does not involve Harvey Keitel (as 1993’s “The Piano” did).

On the other hand we have the Janet Jackson affair. When the singer exposed her medallion-clad areola, it was obvious she was eyeing the March release of her new album. It may turn out to have been the absolute worst time to shock the bourgeoisie.

The incident at the Super Bowl, now almost two weeks old, added fuel to a fire that, only days before, had been flaring up anew. On Jan. 27, the Federal Communications Commission proposed a record $755,000 fine against Clear Channel Communications for broadcasting the sexually explicit radio show “Bubba the Love Sponge” on four Florida affiliates.

The agency also slapped Young Broadcasting of San Francisco Inc. with a $27,500 penalty for airing a man who was exposing himself on its “KRON 4 Morning News” show.

These fines were a prelude to a hearing in Congress called in response to the FCC enforcement bureau’s decision not to fine the NBC network for airing an F-bomb dropped by Bono at the Golden Globe Awards last year.

(Conversely, L.A. Laker Shaquille O’Neal was recently slapped with a $295,000 fine and suspended for one game for dropping same in a live television interview — courtesy of the National Basketball Association, however, not the FCC.)

FCC Chairman Michael Powell was publicly calling for a reversal of the decision, and Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, introduced a bill to increase tenfold the fines for indecency.

Then the Super Bowl halftime show happened.

“That celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt,” thundered Mr. Powell in a statement. “Our nation’s children, parents and citizens deserve better.”

A full-scale FCC probe is now under way. Nixonian denials are issuing from the highest levels of the CBS and MTV networks. (The latter outfit, the one that gave you Britney and Madonna sucking face, produced the halftime segment.)

“This was done completely without our knowledge,” insisted Chris Ender of CBS’ entertainment division. “It wasn’t rehearsed. It wasn’t discussed. It wasn’t even hinted at.”

In politics, they call that derriere-covering “plausible deniability.”

In any case, if it’s found to have violated indecency laws, CBS could be in for $27,500 in fines, a drop in the bucket that could ripple into millions if individual stations are penalized.

The highest audience in the history of the Super Bowl — roughly 89 million households — had tuned into the game, which many have noted was broadcast during the so-called family hour on the West Coast.

The Super Bowl is the epitome of mass viewership. It’s the one event almost guaranteed to draw the entire family.

Of course, overreactions in cases like this are well-nigh inevitable. NBC nixed a shot of an elderly female patient’s breast from an episode of “ER,” despite the medical drama’s late-evening airtime and a context many reasonable persons might deem acceptable.

And yet, charges of censorship and “slippery slopes” should be considered an equal overreaction. Those clucking that “we all have body parts, let’s be mature about this” can put a sock in it, too.

Lenny Bruce was in a Greenwich Village nightclub. “The Dreamers” is a specialty movie playing in art house theaters in major metropolitan areas. Those under 17, if they’ve even heard of it, will have a hard time getting into “The Dreamers.”

No one’s talking about shutting down entertainment aimed at grown-ups.

Look: If you really want to see Harvey Keitel’s penis, neither Michael Powell nor John Ashcroft is interested in stopping you.

They don’t care much what you are allowed to see.

They care about what the rest of us are compelled to watch.

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