Buffy Escapes the Censors

by on August 17, 2004

Unlike many of the other dry technology and media policy issues I monitor, censorship issues occasionally provide some comedic relief, especially when Congress or the FCC start talking dirty. I love the sheer irony of the fact that in order to tell us which words or phrases must never be uttered on broadcast television or radio, Congress must ultimately list them all in a bill, as part of the public record, for the whole world (including school kids) to see. (Take a look at all the filthy talk in H.R. 3687, for example.) My God, aren’t they thinking of the children! Naughty, naughty Congress.

And the FCC occasionally publishes “indecency guidelines” that are even more entertaining. This titillating read provides the industry a series of case studies on what FCC officials will deem indecent. When you read through that document – – after you stop laughing at some of the funny bits in there – – you will be left hopelessly confused about the remarkable randomness of federal censorship policy. In a nutshell, “indecency” is an eye-of-the-beholder issue and it always just depends whose eyes and eyes are doing the evaluating over at the FCC. (See this recent piece of mine for more details.)

Anyway, the FCC has just cast it supremely arbitrary judgment on whether a particular scene in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was indecent. After receiving a complaint from the puritans over at the Parents Television Council, the FCC issued the following decision:

“The November 20, 2001 episode involves a scene depicting Buffy kissing and straddling Spike shortly after fighting with him. Based upon our review of the scene, we did not find that it is sufficiently graphic or explicit to be deemed indecent. Given the non-explicit nature of the scene, we cannot conclude that it was calculated to pander to, titillate or shock the audience. Consequently, we conclude that the material is not patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.”

OK, I’m obviously glad the decision came down against censorship, but let’s think about just how silly this is. The FCC held that Buffy was not patently offensive since it was not “calculated to pander to, titillate or shock the audience.” Hmmm… I bet the producers and writers at Buffy are actually a little offended by that. OF COURSE it was intended to “pander to, titillate or shock the audience.” That’s what a good chunk of television and radio is all about these days. But somehow the FCC gave Buffy a pass anyway.

Without getting off on a long-winded rant about the idiotic intricacies of indecency regulation, my point here can be simply stated as follows: It’s all completely arbitrary and choices about what should seen of television should be left to individuals and parents to decide for themselves. As my good friend Robert Corn-Revere, a partner with the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, argues: “The problem is the indecency standard is not a standard. It’s basically a test for what people find distasteful and that is entirely in the eyes and ears of the beholder.” In a free society, different people will have different values and tolerance levels when it comes to speech, and government should not impose the will of some on all. And when it comes to minding the kids, I’ll take responsibility for teaching mine about the realities of this world, including the unsavory bits. You worry about your own. Let’s not call in the government to do this job for all of us.

(By the way, all this silliness is about to spread to cable TV too. Congress has been busy laying the foundation for a censorship assault on cable and satellite television during this most recent session. Here’s a recent newsletter I wrote on the issue.)

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: