Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Even more bizarre than the prospect of O.J. Simpson “confessing” to the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in a book and TV show and getting a few million for it (proving crime can pay) was the cancellation of both by Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp. The most often heard indictment of this project was that the deal had “crossed the line.”

Given what passes for entertainment on TV these days, I am relieved to know some people believe there is a line to cross. I just wish they would tell me where it is and what happens when it’s violated. Some thought the line was crossed in that fraction of a second that Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed during a Super Bowl halftime show. The Federal Communications Commission did and slapped CBS with a big fine.

Certain words are supposed to cross the line, but apparently only if they begin with the letter “F” (and we’re not talking “Sesame Street” here). Words that begin with “B” apparently do not cross the line. One rhymes with “custard” and the other with “witch.” One frequently hears those words on network TV.

Male bodily fluids are regularly discussed on “CSI” and other crime shows. Most of those mentioning such fluids are women. Apparently, the writers think such things turn some men on.

Corpses get to display more flesh than living people. A bare breast on a dead woman is allowed, but a bare breast on a living woman crosses “the line.” Perhaps that is because Nielsen does not (yet) measure the necrophilia demographic.

Since former FCC Chairman Newton Minow described broadcast television as a “vast wasteland” in 1961, TV has headed south — first toward the gutter, it now reaches the sewer. Like the Cold War in light of the current international mess, some people may be nostalgic for the vast wasteland days over contemporary TV fare.

On Tuesday, NBC revived the old variety show format familiar to many people over the age of 40. “Tony Bennett: An American Classic” honored Mr. Bennett on his 80th birthday, along with the kind of music that will last forever. It was music about love, not lust, and real relationships, not “hooking up.” Such shows once defined entertainment and they left viewers, including children, with good feelings. Because it doesn’t appeal to the youth-obsessed advertisers, this type of show is a dinosaur and I’m surprised NBC broadcast it.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg recently addressed the International Emmys board of directors in Los Angeles. He urged TV networks to be mindful of what they show on the air because of the possible effects on children. Mr. Spielberg said programs like “CSI” and “Heroes” were too gruesome.

“Today we are needing to be as responsible as we can possibly be, not just thinking of our own children but our friends’ and neighbors’ children,” Mr. Spielberg said. He decried on-air promotions for television shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” that shows “blood and people being dissected.” He also said that when his favorite TV show of the new season, NBC’s “Heroes,” showed someone cut in half in the 9 p.m. hour, he sent his younger children out of the room. “I’m a parent who is very concerned,” Mr. Spielberg said.

Many other parents have been very concerned but, as they expressed themselves individually and through various advocacy groups over the years, they were told not to interfere with “artistic expression.” When they persisted, they were disparaged as censors and bigots trying to impose their morality on the country (as opposed to networks imposing their immorality on the country). And yet the crudities, lack of modesty and self-restraint on TV have been major contributors to antisocial behavior and loss of respect for women and almost everything else. The debate continues over whether TV violence encourages real violence, but TV violence certainly doesn’t help.

Ultimately, O.J. Simpson getting millions to spill his guts after being convicted in a civil case and in the public consciousness of spilling the blood of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman should not surprise anyone. It is what happens, not when a line is crossed, but when a line has been erased.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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