The media decency flap

Filed under: Opinion |

The Federal Communications Commission has taken a lot of heat lately regarding broadcaster’s attempts to push the envelope on broadcast decency, the most notable of which is Janet Jackson’s display at the Superbowl, seen worldwide to more than 89 million households. In reality, the Jackson incident is not considered obscene by the FCC’s own rules which create an exemption for nudity included in artistic performances, which was the case on Sunday. Yet, fingers are pointing all over in an attempt to deflect the intense negative political fallout.

Earlier this year, the spotlight was on the FCC’s decision concerning the illusive language standards of broadcast television regulations over U2’s, Bono slipping in an “F-bomb” during the Golden Globe awards. This time, the FCC ruled that Bono’s colorful language was acceptable considering the fact that it did not describe “sexual or excretory organs or activities.” I’m sure that people in many of Colorado’s communities will differ on their interpretation. I sure do. It’s apparent that serving at the FCC is a difficult job of creating laws and policies to make sure that the publicly owned airwaves are managed properly by the broadcasters that use them. In that regard, the FCC expects broadcasters to have some way to ascertain community needs and values. But, with national programming, how can a regulatory body make policy for a “community” as ideologically diverse as an entire country?

This measurement, “the public interest”, is more enigmatic as the U.S. becomes a place of diverse thought because it depends on the notion that a community is a homogenous group of people, a majority of which think alike. Some thirty years ago, Alvin Toffler advocated rewriting the Constitution because the anticipated technology boom would create dynamics in society that would make it obsolete. Basically, the more diverse a community is with regard to ideology, the more difficult it is to come to one view of acceptable content.

Last year, in an attempt to take the country’s temperature on how effective broadcasters serve their community, the FCC took to the road, getting out of the D.C. beltway, to find out how Americans feel about broadcast television and radio. Their first stop, among many to come, was Charlotte, North Carolina on October 22nd, where about 400 local citizens raised concerns about decency, or the lack thereof, on the airwaves. More recently, they visited Austin, Texas. Other road trips are planned, but Colorado cities are not on the preliminary list. “We have community values and community norms that are very, very important to us, and we expect media companies to respond to those norms,” commented Charlotte Mayor, Patrick McCrory.

What bothers me is that I did not have the right to chose whether I heard or saw the objectionable material in either the Jackson or Bono scenarios. Nor did I have the decision capability for protecting my kids from, what I feel is objectionable. They just slipped it in by surprise, obviously to boost their record sales or whatever.

The point of all of this is that what happens in media is a business decision, the objective of which is to make more money. If a program does not get watched, it does not make money for the station or the advertisers and subsequently gets cancelled. It’s not necessarily law or policy that determines a program’s fate.

There is a responsibility in owning a television set, radio or computer. You can’t plunk the kids down and assume that any benevolent organization is watching out for them. If you are offended by content, write or call the station to express your concerns (good luck doing this on the Internet). The advertisers of programs would like to hear from you, as well. When a station or advertiser receives enough unified community feedback, you can be sure that changes will be made. When that happens, communities exercise their responsibility to set the standards of the values in media content and content providers will respond. A complacent public gets to see or hear whatever the media gods decide because there is no “push-back” from the community.