Monday Night Football and Desperate Regulators

by on November 18, 2004

Should Michael Powell be the next NFL commissioner? It might make sense, given the amount of time the FCC has spent looking at football broadcasts lately. Only weeks after the commission fined CBS over showing a bit too much of Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl, ABC is now under the microscope for a somewhat tawdry segment aired at the beginning of Monday Night Football this week.

The video–which more people probably saw on cable news than on the actual show–featured a woman from the hit show “Desperate Housewives” dressed in only a towel in the locker room before the game, propositioning a Philadelphia Eagle. The towel drops at the end of the segment, definitely indicating some hanky-panky, although there’s no nudity.

The segment provoked outrage among many–including many conservatives, who found it out of bounds for prime time. Michael Powell dutifully tsked-tsked the segment, saying he found the segment “very disappointing,” adding “I wonder whether Walt Disney would be proud.” A better question might be whether Thomas Jefferson would be proud that federal bureaucrats increasingly decide what Americans get to see and hear.

Was the segment offensive? That’s of course a subjective judgment–it certainly was beyond what is normally seen on tv at that time, although not as shocking as a lot of other things on TV, including the “Desperate Housewives” show itself.

But the real question is who should decide this question: five members of the FCC, or 300 million Americans with their remote controls? There’s something frankly unsettling about federal officials opining on whether they like this or that thing shown to Americans. (And, although Powell was careful to say he didn’t know whether FCC rules were violated, the chill in the air was nevertheless apparent.)

Advocates of regulation, of course, argue that only “inappropriate” content is at risk. “We just have to draw the line somewhere” is the refrain. Yet, that line is a fuzzy one–and tends inevitably to move in the direction of more and more government control. If there’s any doubt of that, just ask station managers who refused to air Private Ryan last week, out of fear of FCC disfavor. And it is unlikely to end there.

No one should know this more than conservatives–who have spent years fighting politically-correct speech codes on college campuses and elsewhere. In the end, giving government power to define what is appropriate and acceptable may be as–or more–obnoxious to conservatives as to liberals.

Americans offended by what they see on TV (and there is a lot to be offended by), should think twice before calling in the censors to protect them. Instead they should protest the old-fashioned way: with their thumbs on the remote control.

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