Monday, December 13, 2004

FCC Drops its Fig Leaf

Has it really come to this? According to a Washington Post report this morning, the FCC is now investigating NBC over its coverage of The Olympic Games! because it has received at least one complaint about their broadcast.  And no, the issue isn't those excessively lingering closeups during the women's beach volleyball competition (don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about), nor the celebration of homoerotic imagery that is televised Water Polo.

No, no the issue this time is  those oh-so salacious Opening Ceremonies.   Now for everyone but the six of you who watched this riveting spectacle; the Ceremonies featured dancers dressed liked Classical Greek Statutes   Ya know, like the ones display at every art museum in the Western world, the ones thousands of schoo lkids see every year as they troop through those museums on marathon field trips that resemble the Bataan Culture March?

Now this story would be laughable if it weren't  for the spotlight it shines on a very scary fact.  One of the most powerful agencies in the federal government is being held captive by Puritan Zealots
According to a now famous FCC Study  99.8% of all complaints received by FCC last year were from a single advocacy group and only 4! Complaints about the now infamous Janet Jackson exposure during the super bowl were from unique individuals and not form e-mails from this group. (I suspect the rest of the public was a little too stunned about the side-effect voiceover on the Levitra commercials (4hours?!) to be outraged by Ms. Jackson's micro exposure, pretty much only  seen by teen aged boys who know how to operate Tivo's super slo-mo feature)

Now this is America and every self-important advocacy group has the right to hyperventilate and generally work themselves into a tizzy about any issue they choose no matter how ridiculous the rest of us find them (PETA anyone?).    The difference this time, is  that the  federal agency that  has the largest influence on your day-to day life; has essentially turned itself into a lapdog for this particular flavor of the lunatic fringe.     ;Never before, in the history of this country,  has such a small fringe group (PTC has no more than 125-150 active members)  had so much power over what the rest of the country sees thinks and hears.  

    It wasn't supposed to be this way, the very rules designed to protect us from the ravages of overzealous "morals police" have now been used (with the assistance of a friendly chairman) to enforce their sphincter-puckering idea of what morality should be.   The FCC is prohibited from acting unless a complaint is recieved. This is because Congress figured that someone should actually be offended before the FCC took action.  It was a way of  allowing the standard of broadcast decency to evolve as the public became more tolerant without having to re-codify it every time.  It used to be that the FCC, understanding this,  didn't act unless there was significant outrage, over an incident, not a sole complaint.

  Not anymore,  enter Michael Powell, and the new puritan revolution is now on.  Things that wouldn't have raised an eyebrow on Jerry Springer or NYPD Blue 5 years ago, are now considered mortal sins.   Pixilated naughtiness on Fox?  Fine it to the tune of a couple hundred G's.  Micro-second exposure of 1/16" more of the female breast than was on display by the sideline cheerleaders all night?  Million dollar fines.  Exposure of bare Back above the waist?  Declare yourself "deeply troubled and outraged"   Exposure of a woman's unclothed ankle in a public place?  Wait, that's next year,  watch this space.  

The FCC was given power over the public airwaves because they are a limited public resource (there is after all only so much spectrum)  that should be used for the public good.  Ironically the current Chairman, Young Mr. Powell (who seems to have received a defective copy of the integrity gene from his father), has turned that role on its head. He is crusading against the popular culture, while falling asleep in confronting real and serious dangers to our airwaves.

Massive media consolidation that puts two large corporations in charge of ¾ of the public radio spectrum?  yawn So sorry Can't even be bothered to show up for The public forums  his own commission convened to air public concerns.  How about a media conglomerate using its monopoly power to try to swing the election?   Sorry, can't really comment on that, have to see if there is a complaint.  (note ABC's exposure of a bareback on MNF, draws an editorial condemnation, but try to throw an election  and Mikey boy doesn't really think its his place to comment)

We've now reached the point the depictions of Greek Statuary, which haven't  struck most of us as prurient since we were reprimanded for giggling at them by our third grade teacher, may cost NBC millions in fines.  Classical ART! For pity's sake.  (wasn't there a Simpson's episode mocking that very idea once upon a when?)

It would be tragicomic if not for the chilling effect its already had on broadcasters .  ABC affiliates refuse to air saving private Ryan ( a meditation on the costs and horrors of war that might help start a healthy discussion in this country about the Iraqi War), not for the horrific 1st twenty minutes realistically depicting the slaughter of  the  D-day landings, but because the "f-word" is used on occasion by the actors.   Schindler's List, a masterpiece by almost any estimation, can't  be shown anymore because it has scenes of unclothed people being herded like cattle into concentration camps (if you are capable of finding prurient interest in such an image, I strongly suggest you check yourself in to you local mental hospital and tell them you are a sociopath).  What's next?  What if a network news  reporter embedded with the troops films a bloody combat scene or witnesses a  war crime?  Will the network refuse to air it if one of the soldiers uses profanity? (Remember the Powell rule is that the word is actionable   regardless of context

We're being hit with a massive bait and switch by the current commission.   They appear to be protecting the public by concentrating on the part of their mandate that 99.999% of could frankly care less about.  Meanwhile, they are turning a blind eye to a give away of a public resource into the hands of a few super-rich corporations, that will have a destructive effect on the amount and quality of unbiased information the public receives everyday.  Be outraged over the decency crusade, but don't take you eye off the consolidation ball.  Both are the first attempts of small minorities (rich corporate owners, and ultra-right wing religious zealots)  to control American culture, and what you are allowed to think, hear and say.


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