Questions and Answers on Broadcast Decency

This week, the House Telecommunications Subcommittee (search) resumed its hearings on broadcast indecency. 

One of those testifying was John Hogan, the head of Clear Channel Communications (search), the country’s largest chain of radio stations. Not wanting to be scolded by the legislators, Hogan took action in advance against two of Clear Channel’s personalities: indefinitely suspending Howard Stern (search) and firing Bubba the Love Sponge (search). 

But the subcommittee wants more. It wants other radio programmers to crack down on vulgarity.  It wants TV producers to crack down on vulgarity. The hearings go on, as does this column, by providing answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about offensive content (search) on the airwaves:

Are the hearings a good idea?

Yes. New legislation might not be, but the fact that legislators are considering such a thing gives the topic even more publicity, which it deserves, and frightens media executives, which they deserve.

Will some of the legislators use the hearings to show off, to make campaign speeches rather than serious inquiries into indecency?

Of course. Next question.

Have the media paid too much attention to the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake incident at the Super Bowl?

Probably not, for two reasons. First, although the incident itself might not have been as earth-shaking —- or culture-rotting —- as some people believe, it came at a time when a lot of other liberties were being taken with public standards of decency. It was, in other words, the straw that broke the legislators’ reluctance to take matters seriously.

Second, the incident deserves to be taken seriously by everyone, not because it resulted in an exposed nipple, but because it made play out of sexual aggressiveness in the male and sexual subservience in the female to an audience of millions of children. What the popular culture dramatizes, the populace may in time find more acceptable.

Should there be places on television for sex and violence and profanity?

Yes, because there are places for these in real life. But, as is the case with "The Sopranos" and "Sex in the City," programs of a sexual, violent or profane nature should be on late at night and their content should be clearly advertised. The problem that most people have with sex, violence and profanity is not that it exists on the tube, but that it so often appears these days in unexpected venues, ambushing viewers, denying them a choice of whether to watch or switch; by the time you hit the remote, Timberlake has already manhandled Jackson.

But "The Sopranos" and "Sex in the City" appear on premium cable networks. Should there be different standards for decency on cable and broadcast?

Probably not, now that cable, even premium cable, is available in so many homes. But, like their cable counterparts, broadcast executives should do everything they can to protect the unwary and uninterested from watching their “envelope-pushing” programs. And, given what a majority of viewers seem to want, at least what they tell pollsters they want, those executives should keep the number of such programs to a minimum.

Speaking of “pushing the envelope,” why do so many TV producers so often define the phrase in terms of more coarseness, more indecency, more gore?

Because they are crude, infantile, unimaginative, witless and anti-social human beings.

Why don’t they ever want to “push the envelope” in the direction of more intelligence, more virtue, more compassion, more historical understanding or more spirituality?

Because they are crude, coarse, infantile, unimaginative, witless and anti-social human beings.

What would the Founding Fathers think if — ?

Leave the Founding Fathers out of this. They could not have imagined such things as radio or television, much less that the first of the amendments they bequeathed to us would one day be used to justify those mediums presenting us with a singer’s proclaiming, “This is f**king brilliant,” or a disc jockey’s graphically describing sexual intercourse between human beings and cartoon characters. 

We don’t know what the founders would think and it doesn’t matter. We, their descendants, are big boys. And girls. We can think for ourselves. We should make up our own minds about indecency on the air, and act accordingly.


Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT. He is the author of several books, including The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Temple University Press, 2003).

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