How quickly seven years pass. This year's Super Bowl 2011 was much more tame – save for a couple of crass ads – than Janet Jackson’s strip tease in 2004. The implications of her miscalculated P.R. stunt still live on, even today, in the form of the public’s sadly lowered expectations for any smut-free zones on the public airwaves.
As they did on Sunday with the Super Bowl, American families look for opportunities to watch TV together on occasion. Our family, for example, loves "American Idol." Steven Tyler’s addition this year is an exciting development to a woman who still loves hair bands and old-fashioned rock ‘n roll. We all pile up together with popcorn, argue over who deserves the golden ticket, and eventually vote for our favorite performers.
Fox has done a great job of providing good, wholesome family entertainment and has been rewarded handsomely with top ratings and advertising dollars. There will always be a market for this kind of intergenerational fare. However, despite the market incentives, Hollywood doesn’t seem to feel good simply making money and making people happy.
Even though the top-rated shows are often the more tame ones, Hollywood typically pumps out more content that is exponentially racier with vulgar language, violent actions, and now, I fear, nudity.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) cannot fine ABC or any of its affiliates for showing the bare backside of a woman on the show "NYPD Blue" back in 2003.
The court said that this decision was based on a ruling last year that said the FCC cannot fine a broadcaster for a fleeting expletive on a live broadcast, like that of potty-mouthed Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in an awards show.
The "NYPD Blue" incident was scripted nudity, so ABC and the other broadcasters didn’t even have to bother asserting it was an accident.
I served on staff for then FCC Chairman Kevin Martin when most of these earlier decisions were handed down. He was the first FCC chairman to bravely stand up to the broadcasters in a meaningful way and essentially say, “Cut it out, and follow the law.” This wasn’t done flippantly. The FCC lawyers labored over every decision ad nauseum.
The law limits Hollywood’s ability to broadcast the most foul language or nudity from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on the publicly owned airwaves. These rules don’t apply to cable, only the airwaves you and I own and which still garner the most viewers, even with 200-plus other cable options. Broadcasters are given free licenses to broadcast and, in return, are required to meet minimal standards of conduct. Because we, the public, own these airwaves, shouldn’t we have some say over how they’re used? The answer is a resounding, “yes, we should!”
Think of the public airwaves as a national park. There are rules governing behavior at Yellowstone, and people can’t walk naked through it just because a few others might enjoy the show. Families want to use the park, so manners and civility are required.
In the ABC "NYPD Blue" case the court is wrong and should have upheld minimal standards of civility -- instead of caving in to a culture that seems to have no problem exposing families to cultural sewage during prime time. Once the courts allow fleeting nudity and profanity in prime time television, the downward spiral is complete.
Hollywood has zero understanding of common boundaries in regard to indecency, because they often don’t live in the real world. Producers who see no enforcement of the law will have no problem writing even more graphic material into television programs in order to entice some viewers. (We are already seeing this on cable with the Viacom/MTV series "Skins," but cable has no legal limits except obscenity, a line that MTV might well have crossed this time. Cable choice, which allows consumers to choose what’s in their cable packages is the only answer to this conundrum … but I digress.)
The real issue is that activist courts have taken away the one safe harbor in which families could have the expectation of clean programming on the publicly owned airwaves. The FCC should immediately appeal this erroneous decision, as they did in the fleeting expletive case.
But what does this say about Hollywood? Are they so devoid of creativity that they must rely on shock value to sell their product? Critics say, “What does it matter? It’s just a question of taste,” or, “What children view on TV doesn’t affect their thoughts or actions.” Really? Then advise the network’s advertisers immediately, because they’re under the crazy notion that all the billions of dollars they’re spending each year on ads has great effect on what folks think and do.
Hollywood should consider that potential advertisers are becoming so fatigued by their assault on families that they are starting to commission their own content, as in the recent case of WalMart and Procter & Gamble’s latest family movie, starring none other than former "American Idol" contestant Brooke White.
Bottom line is this: Hollywood’s cynical view of the world seems to be that all we really need to do is have more junk piped into our living rooms while kids are watching. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will have a say in this matter. But even if they don’t, it’s our job to push back by contacting advertisers and voting with our remote.
Parents are always the first line of defense for our kids. The ubiquitous nature of television means that even if we disallowed a TV in our homes it will confront our kids elsewhere. However, that doesn’t mean we unilaterally disarm. It means we must remain even more vigilant by exercising our parental authority to just say “no” to certain programming and finally look for opportunities to enjoy good family content together.
"American Idol" may sound “a bit Karaoke” to your family, but we like to hear “Welcome to Hollywood” in the right way.
Penny Nance is CEO of Concerned Women for America, the nation’s largest public policy women’s group; www.cwfa.org.