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Fighting Indecency, One Bleep at a Time

Notable among the latter are the corporate behemoths who dominate the American mediascape. Think of the political and economic clout wielded by Viacom, say, or by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., and you'll begin to see what the PTC is up against.

Murdoch represents a particular conundrum for the organization, and we'll get back to him. But first, let's see how Rankin and the PTC ended up tilting at cultural windmills.

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The Parents Television Council was the brainchild of L. Brent Bozell III, a well-connected conservative activist who remains its president. In 1987, Bozell had launched the Media Research Center, whose mission was explicitly political. The MRC set up a "news tracking system" and set out, according to its Web site, to prove the existence of a pervasive liberal bias that "undermines traditional American values." Bozell is outspoken about his own values, which include vehement opposition to abortion and gay rights.

In 1995, he started the PTC as an arm of the MRC. The two organizations still share office space in Alexandria, where the PTC's research and publications unit is based, though they're now legally separated and the PTC's official headquarters are in Los Angeles.

The PTC scraped along for a few years until its growth was fueled by a startlingly successful newspaper ad campaign against the "moral sewer" of television. It now claims nearly a million members (no fee is required; to join means simply submitting contact information). The organization's $5 million operating budget comes from a combination of small member donations, larger individual contributions and support from foundations, among them the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Conservative advocacy groups working the same territory include Citizens for Community Values and the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association.

But from the beginning, Bozell says, he insisted that "the PTC would have a different mission" from the overtly political MRC. It would be nonideological. It would work with anyone in its crusade against entertainment sleaze.

A crucial early ally, he notes, was the late talk show host Steve Allen, who lent his name to the ad campaign and "who was my political opposite." PTC executive director Winter -- he of the "It's the culture, stupid" quote -- calls himself "left of center," but says he gets along with Bozell fine.

At least in the Alexandria offices, however, conservative vibes dominate. No doors separate the PTC and the MRC. Videotapes of entertainment shows are shelved in the same room as those of news broadcasts. Rankin's boss, 30-year-old director of research and publications Melissa Caldwell, says she got interested in the PTC not because she was worried about TV sex or violence but because she was shocked by what she saw as flagrant anti-business bias on the environment-oriented children's cartoon show "Captain Planet."

Caldwell has other concerns now.

She hadn't watched that much television growing up, she says, and when first hired as an entertainment analyst in 1997, she was assigned to watch "NYPD Blue." In the very first episode she logged, there was a scene showing a man on a couch with one of the female detectives.

"He removed her top and he removed her bra," Caldwell says, "and she was shown, you know, basically he had his thumbs covering her nipples" -- here she gestures with her own thumbs to demonstrate -- "and I was in utter shock."

Not in Kansas Anymore

Aubree Rankin was less shocked. It's not as though she'd seen explicit shows growing up in Manhattan, Kan., where her mom and dad both worked at Kansas State University -- but she'd had a lot more experience with the tube.

"I was a TV junkie," she says, the kind of kid who memorized the TV listings in the newspaper, "and I would have watched it constantly if I'd been allowed to."

But while her parents liked the more graphic shows such as "Hill Street Blues" that were starting to show up on network television in the '80s, they made sure their kids were in bed before they turned those on. When Rankin did watch something dicey like "Beverly Hills, 90210," her mom watched with her, so they could talk about the rights and wrongs of the sex and drug issues that arose.

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