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Fighting Indecency, One Bleep at a Time

Only Popular Culture and Big Media Stand in the Parents Television Council's Way

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2004; Page C01

Aubree Rankin's work life is a cesspool of foul language, kinky sex and horrific violence. If any of those things disturb you, consider yourself warned: You might want to skip to a different story right now.

Or you can stay right here and meet Mr. Sex Toy.

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Rankin is an "entertainment analyst," which is a fancy way of saying she watches television for a living. She works for the Parents Television Council, a nearly 10-year-old advocacy group that defines its mission as "bringing America's demand for positive, family-oriented television programming to the entertainment industry." The PTC wants to bring that demand to American politicians, too. The group declares itself nonpartisan, but that didn't stop executive director Tim Winter from claiming partial credit when President Bush won reelection last month.

"It's the culture, stupid," Winter said then. "Our mission was validated on Tuesday night."

PTC entertainment analysts work in a row of modest gray cubicles at the group's Alexandria office. Rankin's is the one with the "Sopranos" photo on the wall and the shrink-wrapped 'N Sync poster atop the shelves. A 27-year-old Kansas native in a brown corduroy dress, she spends her day reviewing videotapes of her assigned shows and entering questionable material into the PTC's Entertainment Tracking System, a computerized log of televised excess. Occasionally she gives a little snort of what could be either amusement or disapproval -- or both.

Right now she's watching an episode of "Sex and the City," currently syndicated on the cable channel TBS. Three of the main characters are on a road trip to Los Angeles, and Samantha -- "she's the slut, that's her role, she sleeps with everybody" -- is trying to pick up a guy named Garth who gives his occupation as "sex toy model."

"You wouldn't tease a girl, would you?" Samantha replies.

No, he wouldn't. He's "the number two selling model in the U.S.," Garth tells Samantha proudly, and he's numero uno north of the border.

"My thing's bigger in Canada," he says.

Samantha and Garth exchange a dozen lines in this scene. Rankin hits "rewind" nine times before she can get them all down.

What will it take for the Parents Television Council to make American television safe for children? Aubree Rankin and her colleagues have some ideas about that. It starts, they say, with the kind of research Rankin does, which can then be used to rally parents, pressure advertisers, lobby Congress and push the Federal Communications Commission to monitor the nation's airwaves more aggressively.

They've been pushing hard. Broadcast indecency complaints have risen dramatically, from fewer than a thousand in 2001 to more than a million this year. Major factors contributing to the increase have been Janet Jackson's breast-baring Super Bowl broadcast and the efforts of the PTC, which has generated the vast majority of non-Jackson complaints.

PTCers are not advocating censorship, they say. But they do want to turn the clock back -- using democratic means -- to a time when amoral sex and violence weren't so in-your-face.

What stands in the way of their success? Oh, not much: Just the seemingly irreversible trend that has all of American culture becoming cruder and more explicit. Then there are the passionate defenders of the First Amendment who see the Taliban when they look at groups like the PTC, and the equally passionate defenders of the free market who argue that people must want sex and violence since they sell.

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