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Is Decency Going Down the Tubes?

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Showing too much of Janet Jackson just got pricier.

President Bush signed legislation last week that hiked fines for broadcasting indecency tenfold: from $32,500 to $325,000 per nasty bit. America, the president noted, is awash in televised vulgarity: "People are saying, 'We're tired of it, and we expect the government to do something about it.' "

I'm sympathetic to this impulse. But it's foolish to think the latest measure will do much to resolve the concerns of parents who, like me, feel assaulted by the coarseness of popular culture and besieged in the multi-front war they have to wage against it.

Will supersizing fines make much of a dent? Right -- and that bare breast really was a wardrobe malfunction.

For starters, the fundamental problem with broadcast television isn't the occasional outburst of indecency during the hours between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when the indecency rules apply. It's the constant avalanche of the inappropriate -- from talk shows to reality TV to prime-time dramas.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study last year found that 77 percent of prime-time shows contained sexual content, up from 67 percent in 1998. More than one in 10 shows overall featured "scenes in which sexual intercourse is either depicted or strongly implied." Anyone who complacently relies on indecency rules to shield his or her children is committing parental malpractice.

Moreover, the quest to define indecency inevitably devolves into the ludicrously subjective. A few months back, the solons of the Federal Communications Commission found that a term for bovine excrement is "so grossly offensive" as to be "presumptively profane."

Okay, except that, according to the FCC, a certain nickname for Richard, and its two-syllable version ending in "head," don't violate this standard. These terms are "understandably offensive to some viewers," but not "sufficiently vulgar, explicit, or graphic descriptions of sexual organs or activities to support a finding of patent offensiveness." As pretty much any 13-year-old could have told the FCC, it ordered the wrong expletive deleted.

This would be amusing if there weren't also a chilling downside to indecency enforcement. After the Janet Jackson uproar, some ABC affiliates balked at showing "Saving Private Ryan." And in its recent crackdown, the FCC fined a public television station for showing a Martin Scorsese-produced documentary on the blues, because it used profanity that the commissioners deemed not "demonstrably essential" to the work. Somehow, I'd rather leave the artistic judgments to Scorsese.

The bigger problem with focusing on broadcast indecency is that, in the real world, it's almost meaningless. More than 85 percent of American households get their television programming through satellite or cable, which aren't, and as a constitutional matter probably couldn't be, subject to indecency rules (although the broadcast stations carried over cable are, of course).

So broadcast networks can be fined millions for failing to bleep out barnyard epithets while cable channels air far dirtier words with impunity. This is like fencing off a few miles of an ever-expanding border and declaring that you've solved the problem of illegal immigration.

And that doesn't consider the proliferating number of alternative platforms for foul language and coarse content: video games played on Xboxes and GameCubes and PlayStations; music downloaded to iPods and other MP3 players; and -- most vexing of all -- the array of opportunities for mischief on the Internet, from click-to-view pornography to chat rooms to social-networking sites.


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