NASHVILLE, Tenn. CBS and other broadcast television networks increasingly are pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable entertainment as the Federal Communications Commission, the government body charged with enforcing indecency laws, awaits an upcoming Supreme Court hearing in order to determine a response.
The Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan watchdog group, filed an indecency complaint with the FCC after an Oct. 20 episode of the CBS show "Two and a Half Men" which featured a three-minute-long strip club scene featuring a lap dance. The show aired at 8 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones, violating a law that prohibits the airing of indecent material before 10 p.m.
"The scene was in no way 'fleeting' or accidental; rather, it was specifically written into this scripted program," Tim Winter, PTC's president, said in a news release. "It's high time for CBS to be held accountable for violating the public trust, the broadcast decency law and the two consent decrees it signed with the FCC promising not to air indecent content."
In September, CBS aired male nudity on "Survivor: Gabon," which featured a scene in which a contestant's genitals were shown falling out of his shorts as he ran. The episode began at 7 p.m. in Central and Mountain time zones. In August, CBS aired an uncensored utterance of the f-word on "Big Brother 10." A woman was arguing with a man when the word was spoken, and it was not bleeped, muted or concealed in any way, PTC said. And during the summer, CBS glamorized extramarital partner-swapping and drug use on the drama "Swingtown," which has since been removed from airwaves after intense pressure from advertisers.
On other networks, NBC in September allowed an uncensored s-word during the "Today Show," which airs mornings before some children leave for school, and co-host Matt Lauer laughed at the profanity instead of apologizing for its presence on the show. In April, NBC aired sexual content on "My Name Is Earl" during the family hour, which begins at 8 p.m. Eastern. Episodes of NBC's "30 Rock" and "The Office" also have carried references to vulgarity, Parents Television Council said.
Among other offences by network broadcasters: a nude photo shoot on CW during "America's Next Top Model" in March; nudity on NBC's "Las Vegas" in February; an uncensored c-word on NBC's "Today Show" in February; and an uncensored f-word on ABC's "Good Morning America" in January.
Though the PTC has filed official complaints with the FCC for each of the infractions, the FCC has not acted. Winter, who has two decades of experience in broadcast and cable as well as a law degree, told Baptist Press that Congress has given the FCC sufficient authority to enforce broadcast decency law.
After the 2004 Super Bowl featuring Janet Jackson, Winter said the networks complained that they could not control such content, especially because it was "fleeting" and unpredictable. They would follow the law, the networks said, if the FCC would give them clear guidelines.
"Once given that clarity, the networks said, 'Well, we don't like that, so we're going to file suit and say that it violates our First Amendment rights,' even though 30 years ago the Supreme Court said it's constitutional to ask them to wait until 10 p.m. to air indecent material," Winter said.
CBS' recent broadcast of the f-word on Big Brother was intentional, Winter said, because it was edited into the program. When PTC called CBS on it, the network refused to apologize and contended that because no one else had complained, it must not have been a problem. Then came the Survivor episode.
"The irony surrounding this broadcast is it was the first-ever high definition broadcast for CBS of this show in primetime," Winter said. "So what more tongue-in-cheek action could you take if a high definition show is going to premier than to have something like this happen?"
Drawing from the thousands of hours he has clocked in television edit rooms, Winter said it is impossible for that segment which included male nudity to have been edited into the show unintentionally.
"It's impossible because you're getting down to fractions of seconds as far as where to begin that little clip, where to end that little clip, and where to put it into the show," he said.
Broadcast networks continue to push the envelope regarding acceptable material, Winter said, in part because they want to make past FCC violations appear minor.
"I think that once you do something that is even more egregious, then the thing that is now being discussed from several years ago is no longer that offensive," Winter told BP. "And they say, 'Gosh, it was just a word. How could you possibly fine us for a little word that happened a few years ago? Look how much more graphic things are now.'
"It seems like by airing things that are even more graphic, what you have is this implied level of acceptance that something less graphic than what you're seeing today is OK," he said.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on "fleeting" profanity in FCC v. Fox beginning Nov. 4, taking up the issue of broadcast decency for the first time in three decades.
Also, Winter said the prevailing voices in the creative community of Hollywood today seem to believe that they must include more grotesque violence, more graphic sexuality and more profane language in order to tell good stories. But when success is measured by box office hits, historically the movies that bring in the most money are those that can be enjoyed by the entire family, Winter said. The concept applies to television as well, he said, noting that the premiere of "High School Musical 2" on the Disney Channel last year was the "single most viewed program in cable television history."
"There's a reason why most families can't even watch broadcast TV anymore, except for a few shows. There's a reason why they flee to cable, and the reason is there's nothing that's safe out there for them," Winter said. "I think that the TV networks are accelerating their own irrelevancy by continuing to push the envelop and 'compete' with the most graphic cable networks as opposed to doing something better, which is embracing the larger marketplace out there."
Winter said he appreciates parents who are educated about the content their children are absorbing from television because objective studies show a direct link between viewing habits and real-life behavior.
"As parents and families become more aware, just as they did with tobacco products and health issues, once they understand the correlation, I think most folks will make better decisions in terms of what they allow their children to see," Winter said.
Since Congress has authority over the FCC and the FCC is charged with curbing broadcast indecency, Winter said citizens should voice their concern to their senators and congressmen. Also, people must realize another role they play in whether provocative material continues to air on the nation's television networks.
"Most people sitting at home with a remote control in their hand think of themselves as the consumer," Winter said. "That's actually not true. The reality is the viewer is the product that the network is selling to an advertiser. If advertisers refuse to support a program because of its graphic nature, the show either must be toned down or it financially is unsuccessful and it goes away."