Desperate Regulators (con’td)

by on November 24, 2004

Last week, I posted a comment on the Monday Night Football/Desperate Housewives tempest, arguing that rather than have the FCC censor broadcasts, Americans should tune out offensive material the old fashioned way, with our thumbs on the remote control.

The post garnered a sprited dissent from a reader who argued that because broadcasting is so pervasive, viewers don’t really have a choice. I suggested that he should get out of the house more. Uh oh. The reader really launched on me after that one, writing:

“Yeah, you’ve got a point James. Let’s let all the shit in the world over the public airwaves. Hardcore porn in primetime. Anybody who doesn’t like it doesn’t have to own a tv. Or go to stores with tv’s. Or own cars with radios. Or let your kids have friends with either. How about a little full frontal nudity on the nightly news? It’s my fault for watching tv at all. “Get out more?” You’re basically telling me that it’s a parent’s responsibility to shield their kids from anything they don’t want them to see, but the only way to do that is to become Amish. Tell me, do you support having ANY decency standards on tv or radio at all? If so, what is that line?”

Wow. I really got him mad, which is probably my fault for being so flip. (And it’s not like we have so many readers here we can afford to offend any of them!) And he does raise points which deserve an answer.

As a first matter, I’m still stumped as to why this stuff on TV is so hard to avoid. Maybe I’m out of the mainstream, but somehow I missed the MNF video–didn’t hear about it until it was endlessly played on the news. In fact, I’ve also never seen “Desperate Housewives” itself. I even missed the Janet Jackson breast thing–didn’t watch the Super Bowl halftime show at all. I’m not saying I’m like most Americans in viewing habits, but I’m not Amish either. Not even close.

My point is that, with a hundred or so channels to choose from, I don’t see any of them as unavoidable. And it doesn’t matter whether those channels are on “broadcast” tv or cable. Like the vast majority of Americans, all my channels come through cable, and I don’t really care whether they’re also sent throught the ether.

Is there a chance that kids will see something untoward in a store, or at a friend’s house? Yes, of course, just as they might see something untoward in a magazine or newspaper. That doesn’t mean that we should censor print media (or that magazines and newspapers inevitably become pornographic just because the FCC doesn’t control them.)

But do I still have a choice if I want to watch NFL football? Aren’t I then stuck with watching whatever trash comes with the football game? Well, yes, then I am. For the same reason that if I want to watch the “Simpsons” I am at the mercy of Fox Broadcasting and Matt Groening, or if I want to watch the CBS Evening News I am at the mercy of Dan Rather (at least until next March.)

The point is that NFL football belongs to its owners, and that those owners can decide where it is shown, what it is shown with, and what kind of image it will have. It may certainly be a bad business decision to mix NFL football with videos of women dropping towels, but until I buy an NFL franchise (or a share of the broadcaster who buys the rights to the NFL), I don’t really get to decide. The NFL, by the way, also has every incentive not to offend its viewers–even without FCC oversight. (Popular as it is, the World Wrestling Federation is probably not the preferred product image for most sports owners.)

The reader concludes by asking what decency standards I would put on radio and TV. Very simply, I’d apply the same standards used for cable, or better yet, for newspapers and magazines. There simply isn’t a need for government controls on speech in a world where outlets are not limited. Even if you are not Amish.

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