Friday, December 03, 2004

Sense and Censorship
After all the phoney outrage about the T.O.-Desperate Housewives stunt on ABC a few weeks ago, and the increased FCC prudishness under the rule of Michael Powell, you can expect to hear more about censorship in the months and years to come. When Republicans have nothing better to do, they usually can gin up some support by joining their fundamentalist wing with the sanctimonious Tipper Gore-Joe Lieberman axis of the Democrats to do battle for "decency" and the children. When you hear this sort of thing, it's time to put your Sex in the City DVD's under lock and key and to pay a last visit to your local smuthouse, if you're into that sort of thing.

This tedious crusade almost always takes the form of kvetching about the dangerous effects of foul language and nudity -- whether on rap albums or on NYPD Blue. So long as it's confined to a slap on the wrist for the occasional trangression by the major networks, this doesn't really keep me up at night. Of course, what amuses me about people who lose their cookies when they see Nicole Sheridan's backside is just how much violence and killing they will tolerate at the same time. Last night, for instance, I watched a 60-minute episode of CSI that included a very graphic and sustained sequence in which a Vegas prostitute was viciously bludgeoned with a towel rack by her boyfriend, after which she hemorrhaged to death, spraying blood all over the walls and her drugged-out, unconscious customer. Somehow, though, I don't remember hearing the clarion call to BAN CSI or anything like that.

But rumors are now flying that the FCC is going to come after cable TV, in an attempt to regulate its content just as it controls the programming on broadcast television. This would be a shame for several reasons. First, some of the most innovative and exciting television is now made for cable, whether on HBO, Comedy Central, or Showtime. The thought of Michael Powell emptying his sordid red pen all over a Sopranos script is just too much to bear. The fact that it would make people like Jerry Falwell happy doesn't help either. But a larger issue is at stake here, and it's free speech. I tend to be a free speech absolutist, but if the powers that be think we shouldn't see graphic sex or hear the word "fuck" on broadcast television, I can live with that. Cable is another matter, though, because to receive it you have to make a very conscious decision to fork over $70 a month to your local cable extortionist. As part of that Faustian bargain, you should forfeit your right to not be offended by the indecent material that's being piped into your home. If you're worried that your children might catch a glimpse into what the scary, scary world is actually like, you could always turn off the television or use the v-chip.

If the FCC really does come after cable TV, that's just one more reason to get rid of the entire agency. Liberals could, for a change, be out in front of one of those eliminate-a-government-agency epidemics that seems to break out every few years. As far as I can tell, the only useful thing the FCC does is to regulate frequencies for cellular telephone providers and broadcasters and I'm sure that function could be fobbed off on some other unsuspecting agency somewhere in the leviathan. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 effectively eviscerated the FCC's ability to prevent monopolies from forming in the radio business. Either way, the FCC should be stripped off its absurd power to "fine" broadcasters or to otherwise make a joke out of the First Amendment.

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