- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

Many years ago, an old friend predicted television ultimately would become a series of situation comedies or dramas staged around the bedroom or bathroom and sponsored by the manufacturers of feminine-hygiene products or medicine for the treatment of hemorrhoids.

He said the application of each product would be demonstrated live at least once during each broadcast.

Anyone paying attention to television, both free and pay, realizes full well that while it hasn’t exactly reached that point of offensiveness, it is coming pretty close. So much so, in fact, that television sleaze and the Federal Communications Commission’s apparent inability to deal with it has become a major controversy once again. But this time the stakes could be high for everyone, given the potential for censorship lurking in every lawmaker.

And a bare breast and suggestive gyrations in the midst of what was supposed to be wholesome entertainment called the Super Bowl is merely the catalyst for increasing public demands for some sort of regulation over the content of broadcast television.

Janet Jackson’s shocker or Madonna and Britney Spears kissing open-mouthed or Diane Keaton’s four-letter exclamation of surprise during prime-time awards ceremonies are just the latest evidence that when it comes to taste, television’s is limited to the endless daily recipes being inflicted on an overweight nation.

If the FCC — already under attack for rules that permit big media companies to own more and more stations, thereby further diluting local influence over programming — doesn’t try to control the situation somehow, Congress is sure to do so. Given the political sensitivity to religious groups during an election year, the results could be devastating to free expression, artistic and otherwise.

Both the House and Senate already have undertaken hearings on broadcast content and the FCC’s approach to regulating it. Legislation has been introduced to increase to $275,000 the fines that could be levied against networks for indecency and, understanding the dynamics here, that could go much higher.

There is an obvious, preferable solution. The industry could do more than pay lip service or promise time delays to clean up its own mess, one that has been worsened by the popularity of trash talk on radio from scatological disc jockeys and trash video on television, from Jerry Springer to the spate of exploitation dramas produced under the “reality” label. The bachelor shows, males and females on the prowl, are particularly demeaning to both sexes, trivializing romance in a meat-market atmosphere.

Even the hugely successful “Survivor” series, which sparked it all, can’t resist titillating its audience with scantily clad women participants, hints of sexual liaisons and even some jerk who insists on disrobing entirely during the show’s silly challenges, much to the dismay of some of his fellow contestants who were visibly uncomfortable with his display. Viewers who stayed with CBS after the Super Bowl were treated to this guy’s bare backside and blurred frontal nudity on numerous occasions.

Why, it seems fair to ask, didn’t the network demand he keep on his bathing suit or leave the show? It would have been a good first step toward convincing the public it is serious about bringing some sense of decorum back to the medium.

The answer seems to lie in the desperate efforts to compete with subscriber television, which has no restrictions and is cutting heavily into the audience share of traditional TV and ultimately its revenues. So what is now being sold to that portion of the public still committed to the nonpay variety skirts closer and closer to the edge of what was once unthinkable in polite society — flatulent horses and kids mouthing four-letter expletives, for instance.

None of this is surprising in a modern era of violence, sex and the depiction of nearly every sordid subject and vile act known to mankind. Huge dollars flow from this sensationalism, after all. But there are still many Americans who just don’t want it piped into their front rooms while trying to watch what was a heck of a great football game or any other entertainment billed as for the entire family.

Perhaps the only way to get the message across is to hit the media companies where it hurts the most, in their wallets. Unfortunately, that becomes a form of censorship that could carry into legitimate programs. It would be far better for the major players to censor themselves.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.


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