Indecent. This single word conjures up images of swearing during awards shows, gratuitous sex, nipple slips during half-time bowl games and most famously George Carlin’s speech of Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television. I recently had the opportunity to think more about this word, the implication to viewers of all ages, how this indecency standard aligns with the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and what it means to the future of programming on television. Should the FCC just lighten up and let broadcasters make their own decisions with no fear of fines?
Since 1978 and the famous case of FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation, the concept of what is and what is not indecent has long been debated (and litigated) by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the broadcast industry. In April of this year, the FCC requested comments about this regulation. Fox Television, this past week, issued a comment to the FCC urging the Commission to lessen indecency limits. Fox argues that broadcasters should be given wide “editorial discretion” to select programming. Fox continued by advocating that unless content was “highly graphic” or contained verbal or visual “shock treatment” then the FCC should not concern itself with the claim. Fox based the majority of their comment on alleviating the tension between the FCC and the First Amendment. If you are so inclined, you can read the entire comment HERE.
Don’t get me wrong – I am a big fan of the First Amendment. If I had to choose a favorite Amendment (if you were wondering, yes – lawyers do have conversations like this), I would have to say the First Amendment. It encompasses those things that most people, me included, hold extremely personal and close – the right to say what you want, the right for our press to print the truth without fear and the right to practice, or not, a religion of one’s choosing. I certainly do not want to diminish the importance of this part of the United States Constitution. However, in the case of broadcasting, I respectfully disagree with Fox Television.
It appears from the comment submitted by Fox Television that an ideal world would be free from the FCC looking over broadcasters’ shoulders. With a signing of a pen, the entire world of creativity would open for broadcasters and those that create content. Outside of graphic pornographic material, we could see portions of body parts, hear an F-bomb when passing by channels and perhaps see other images that are not “highly graphic” but are still shocking to most.
I imagine a world where perhaps beloved PBS characters on Sesame Street would start teaching children about the birds and the bees via puppet sex. Or, will it become necessary for parents to oversee the watching of the “new and improved” Full House in order to explain what happens after Uncle Jesse declares “have mercy” and closes the bedroom door with Aunt Becky? While Fox Television’s comments do have some merit, society might not be ready to open the floodgates and push American television to those limits. I wonder whether a market that now has programming safe for most could co-exist in a world where slightly less than graphic content is the new norm. One only has to look to the near past to see how quickly television programming changed once reality television was introduced. Now, it is part of the everyday television culture.
When The Hubs and I were talking about the comment this weekend, he made a great point. One of our favorite shows to watch is the reality series Duck Dynasty. The Hubs stated that what he likes most about Duck Dynasty is that he knows he can watch it, that it will be funny and that he can have it on around the children of our friends without worrying about what might be said or having to explain something to sensitive ears. He expressed that he liked the show because if we were to ever have a tiny-human Saucier that there is still programming available that we could watch as a family.
In the age of reality television, competition for ratings and having the “next hit show,” for the FCC to relax all regulations would undoubtedly lead to creators of content pushing the envelope even further. Would those family friendly shows like The Cosby Show, American Idol and Full House still find a place in prime-time? Can programming suitable for all exist in a world where slightly less than shock value programming is acceptable? With the tightening of budgets in Hollywood and the competition for ratings, I am not certain.
I agree that there needs to be more clarification from the FCC, but to completely disregard all limits except for “graphic” and those with “shock treatment” is swinging the delicate pendulum of balance to the other end. And, once restrictions are taken away it would be more than difficult to put the restrictions back on, especially on content created in the interim. I believe in the good that can come from broadcasting shows like PBS’s Sesame Street to Duck Dynasty to even Full House. I fear for the sustainability and funding for programs like those should the FCC regulations be relaxed. With all the good that comes from broadcasting, society should still be able to experience it together.
What do you think? Should the FCC lessen the broadcast regulations on indecency? Or, should they more clearly define it? Take part in the conversation below and Stay Tuned In.
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