AIMING TO please may sound like an unassailable impusle.It isn't. There are times when the pleasure goal has to be subverted to more important values, especially in television, where the desire to keep viewers happily receptive to commercials can lead not only to escapist entertainment but even to escapist journalism.
Some maintain, for instance, that "Happy Talk News" is dead as TV plague. Not entirely. In Washington, WJLA has perfected a modified substitute: Happy Face News. Its newscasters try to modulate bad tidings with glad grins, so that we won't be unduly ruffled. This week reporter Chris Curle, reciting headlines, managed to say "Takoma Park woman stabbed to death" while hardly wrinkling her bionic smile.
Things are worse in Baltimore, where they have actual clowns in delivering the local news on all three network affiliates. On one, the news team is advertised as "going together" just like Laurel and Hardy. The resemblance doesn't end there.
It is because television and radio operate according to the pleasure imperative that occurences like last week's Supreme Court decision on the Seven Dirty Words case are so disturbing. It isn't that one longs or needs to hear George Carlin's seven dirty words - or anybody dirty words - on TV or radio. It's that one hates, or should hate, to see the FCC empowered with added authority over any words spoken on the air and with the ability to enforce its whims about what can or can't be said at one time of day or another.
The Supreme Court decision is a totally unnecessary intrusion on the broadcaster's freedom of speech. Few TV or radio stations have even been or will ever be inclined to go off on foul-mounted wingdings or program peep-show porno, because it isn't in their financial interest to do so; nobody needs the Supreme Court to prevent this, because it won't happen. On the other hand, there are minority-interest radio stations - and, with cable, there will be minority-interest TV stations - that naturally and justifiably have different language standards and social values than, say, networks like ABC, CBS and NBC, who strive to appeal to all of the people of the time.
Why is so much of television bland, undistinguished and feeble? Partly because network and station executives put a higher value on not offending an audience than on intellectually or artistically engaging one! The rewards for inoffensiveness are dollars from advertisers - or, in the case of public TV, funding from underwriters. The broadcasting system in this country works against the airing of controversial, potentially abrasive or outrageous material.Public TV has no trouble finding funders for "Crockett's Victory Garden" or Julia Child's interminable cooking sprees, but both port public affairs programming that might raise unpleasant issues or deal in harsh realities.
The Supreme Court has told the FCC not just that it has a right to ban a particular comedian's monologue (and giving the FCC the power to fine and punish stations after the fact is virtually prior restraint, or ban power) but that TV and radio content can legally be regulated by a federal agency into a state of acceptability for children. If you're going to stipulate what can be heard or shown when children are probably in the audience, then it's short step to stipulating what can be aired when children are possibly in the audience.
Broadcasters must be able to approach subjects and deal with issues that children neither can nor need to understand but which are essential if this everyday, wonder broadcasters control is to have a social function beyond keeping people pleased as Hawaiian Punch or smiley as the Stepford Wives. This involves more than the ability to include strong language in a program, and so does the court's decision on the seven dirty words.
Richard E. Wiley, who was chairman of the FCC when this unfortunate indecency ball got rolling, said last week in answer to charges that it was his "pet" project that it was no such thing and that he'd felt certain the Supreme Court would refuse to hear the Carlin case. After all, there are already plenty of statues against obscenity, on or off the airwaves, and more than enough regulations to deal with it should it raise. It was unfair to blame Wiley for the decision that the Supreme Court came up with. He did not instigate or advocate it, though he does say the FCC needed to have its powers in this area more clearly defined. Now that they're defined to an unfortunate extreme, we can all just hope the FCC doesn't get it in its seven heads to use them every time a viewer or listener complains that his kid heard a naughty word on the air.
What is to be feared in all this is the proverbial chilling effect the decision might have on producers, writers or reporters who contemplate dealing with tough inflammatory or provocative material in an unflinching adult way. Suppose the Supreme Court decision had come a week earlier; would executives at ABC have thought not just twice but three or four times about airing the shattering and significant documentary "Youth Terror" with its expletives intact? As it was, 21 ABC affiliated stations used the strong language as an excuse not to carry the program. So instead, they were able to air less disturbing fare that did not risk irritating or alarming viewers and thus possibly putting them in a less receptive mood for commericals.
The Dodge division of Chrysler Corporation which had been a participating sponsor of the documentary, turned tail at the last minute because of the "violence and profanity" in the program and withdrew. But this wasn't violence and profanity inserted to hype up a cop show with sensationalism. This was real life. How unreal does real life have to be made in order to put it on television?
It would be silly to advocate that broadcasters constantly blast viewers and listeners with depressing facts and dire predictions about the society in which they live. No one wants to come home night after night and be shocked out of one's skin by double-whammies of unrelenting realism on TV. On the other hand, the real world ought to come up once in a while, without a thick cosmetic gloss prettying it up, just to keep this magnificent resource called broadcasting from becoming a perpetual brain massage that sends one off to slumberland thinking all's right with the world.
Now that TV has found ways to make even horrible news seem harmless at best and entertaining at worst - Renee Poussaint, the new anchorwoman on WJLA, appears determined to keep us cheery through even the most horrendous events - and considering how inviting it is for broadcasters to supply us only with pepper-uppers and bromidic placebos, and now that the Supreme Court has told the FCC it's okay to ride shotgun over what words are uttered at what hours on the air - and thus, to some extent, what thoughts and ideas are communicated, and how - broadcasting risks more than ever the fate of becoming the national court jester.
It will be there to cheer us, to lull us, to please us, to pamper us, to cajole us and to make us happy, or help us think we are happy. And this messenger, whom millions of American have made their chief source of not only entertainment but of information, will exercise even more discretion and restraint in telling us news we might not like. Thus does the pleasure ethic make further inroads into our world view and our expectations for life, and it will be more solidly entrenched each time one broadcaster says to another, "Do you really think we ought to put this on the air? Remember the Supreme Court. Remember those seven dirty words."