CBS was recently hit with a record indecency fine of US$3.3 million, courtesy of the FCC. The fine was handed down for an episode of Without a Trace in which a character has a flashback to the night of a crime. That crime, however, takes place in the middle of an after-school orgy, and therein lies the problem. Though the scene contains no nudity, there’s plenty of skin on display along with some teenage bump and grind action. According to Mediaweek, the show initially drew no negative comments, but when it was aired again a few months later (in late 2004), it caught the attention of the Parents Television Council (motto: “Because Our Children Are Watching”), and the manufactured outrage began.
Whatever you think about the appropriateness of the segment in question, there’s no doubt that the response was “manufactured,” since none of the complainants apparently even saw the show when it was aired. The PTC made a clip of the offending segment and posted it on their own website, inviting their readers to submit a pre-written letter of complaint to the FCC. CBS affiliates are now protesting the fine against them, arguing that all 4,211 e-mailed complaints about the show came from this site and from one run by the American Family Association (which claims that more than 70,000 complaints were submitted; it’s difficult to reconcile these two numbers). The CBS stations argue that such complaints are inappropriate and invalid.
“There were no true complainants from actual viewers,” the stations said. To be valid, complaints must come from an actual viewer in the service area of the station at issue, the filing said.
“The e-mails were submitted … because advocacy groups hoping to influence television content generally exhorted them to contact the commission,” the CBS stations said.
One odd feature of the outrage campaign is that the video clip is actually hosted on the PTC website, where it is accompanied by a fairly graphic textual description of the action. For a group that doesn’t think such material should be seen, it’s a bit ironic for them to be in the business of showing it to people, but I guess it’s hard to get outraged if you haven’t seen the clip.
The Parents Television Council is well known in the media world, since they are responsible for nearly all indecency complaints filed with the FCC. (They are also outraged at the FCC for not counting every pre-written e-mail complaint.) The fact that a few interest groups are responsible for generating the vast majority of indecency complaints in the country might suggest that most of the American public is not, in fact, actually outraged with the state of contemporary television (or, if they do object to it, they may simply turn it off, instead of looking to the government for relief). That’s not how FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate sees things, though.
“If numbers are any indication, many Americans are not happy about the way that their airwaves are being utilized,” she writes in a recent opinion. “The number of complaints filed with the FCC reached over one million in 2004. Indeed, since taking office in January 2006, I have received hundreds of personal e-mails from people all over this country who are unhappy with the content to which they—and, in particular, their families—are subjected.”
Assuming that each of those one million complaints came from a unique individual (even though this is unlikely), that means that only one million out of the total three hundred million people in the US complained. Now, even if we exclude children from this count, the point is clear: few people are actually objecting, and those who do often base their objections on what they see and hear at various web sites, not what they actually watch on television.
The other problem with Commissioner Tate’s statement is that people are not “subjected” to television in the same way that they are subjected to, for instance, federal income tax, and using such language doesn’t help the public debate on this issue.
It’s also worth pointing out that context is everything in these cases. For instance, the Bible contains the story of a young concubine who is raped until she dies, after which her master dismembers her body and sends the 12 pieces around to the various tribes of Israel (Judges 19). Few of the people who filed the indecency complaints with the FCC would likely argue that the Bible is indecent. Why not? Context plays a large role here. The biblical tale is in no way glorifying rape and dismemberment; rather the opposite, in fact. It seems more helpful to talk about indecency concerns in the context of the total message being conveyed. Is the objectionable behavior glamorized, or is it ultimately shown to be self-destructive?
More record fines are in the forecast after President Bush signed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act yesterday, a law that now raises the maximum indecency fines from US$32,500 to US$325,000 (and that’s per station, per violation).
While critics have often noted that grassroots campaigns are also orchestrated online by organizations like the EFF, others have routinely noted that while the EFF uses similar tactics, the sheer number of complaints does not affect change, fines, or legislative results. The PTC complaints, on the other hand, do force the FCC to launch an investigation or risk a lawsuit, which means that by simply motivating its base with lurid tales of “teen orgies” (without any context), the PTC can force FCC investigations into every single show it objects to.