The Supreme Court recently heard arguments that challenged the power of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to sanction and fine broadcast networks whenever there is indecent exposure or a curse word spoken on the airwaves. Broadcast networks argue that it is against the First Amendment for the FCC to wield this power over them.
However, to make the claim that forcing networks to eliminate curse words and other elements of programming from the airwaves somehow impedes their First Amendment rights is ridiculous. Besides, there are only two questions a network executive ought to ask himself before airing a television show: 1) Is the show good? And 2) Will it find an audience in my network? If all network heads truly answered these two questions, there would not even be a case to take to the Supreme Court.
Public stations, like PBS and other regional channels, as well as the top 5 networks, FOX, NBC, CBS, ABC and the CW, all have a responsibility to the public to transmit programs that are family-centered, or maybe even scandalous (to a point) in the name of entertainment. They might argue that the threat of a fine inherently inhibits their production studios from properly articulating whatever message they’re trying to convey in their shows. Maybe so, but it is no secret that the networks are in the business of making money, perhaps even more so than they are in the business of entertaining.
Keeping this mind, consider the fact that the most watched television show in America is American Idol, a show that serves primarily as a springboard for people looking to become music icons—clearly nothing to censor there. The most watched, scripted series on TV is the CBS navy-police drama, NCIS, a show with adult-oriented elements such as dead bodies and shooting scenes that is nonetheless very sensitive to the fact that little children might be watching.
The shows that are meant to be cutting-edge, scandalous and edgy, trying to push the bounds of decency and entertainment, all seemingly get cancelled within the first couple months of their first episode. (Think of all the ridiculous ABC and NBC shows that have found themselves dumped within the first month, such as Friends with Benefits and The Playboy Club). Scantily clad women, tough-as-nails and swearing-like-a-sailor characters and blood and gore do not necessarily translate into good ratings on these channels. On basic cable television they might, but in public broadcasting, probably not. It is simply not good business sense to air these shows on public TV.
It is easy to argue that the FCC should play no role in regulating the airwaves. While I am by no means an advocate for any government bureaucratic agency, there is really no doubt that holding the line on this matter makes a lot of sense. America is, by and large, a center-right nation. Most people worry about whether or not they might make ends meet, living from paycheck to paycheck. They worry if they will be able to pay the mortgage and provide for their children. They do not have much time for television, perhaps only a handful of hours a night. Now, during those hours, predominantly referred to as prime time, most would like to watch a good, entertaining, decent show with their children.
This is why cheesy reality shows like American idol, serial dramas such as NCIS, comedies like The Big Bang Theory and sports win big in the ratings business. Not many are interested in watching violence-centric shows like, for example, The Wire (no doubt the greatest show of all time) or Sons of Anarchy. There is a destination for the lovers of these kinds of shows, and it is called cable. Almost 60 percent of American homes have some kind of a basic cable plan (usually going hand-in-hand with their respective Internet bills), so shows that would be censored in public broadcasting still have a huge audience on other channels.
There was a time in history when government was truly and actively censoring broadcasting shows and compromising people’s First Amendment rights. Thanks to Joseph McCarthy’s relentless witch hunt against supposedly communist behavior in the country, network broadcasting heads were quick to take away any content off the air that could be deemed un-American. Some writers were censored time and again, and most didn’t dare defy the political process on their shows for fear of being blacklisted.
After being blacklisted, one had approximately the same chance of working as a writer in Hollywood as a just-released-from-prison pedophile has attempting to become a kindergarten teacher. Even those that stood up to this perverse tyranny, like the Hollywood Ten, found themselves in prison for the crime of expressing a perspective. This purging of ideological diversity on the airwaves is what censorship entails. What happened back then should be viewed as a proper example of what it means when people say their First Amendment constitutional rights are being compromised.
At the end of the day, context prevails, making this argument between broadcasting stations and the FCC less of a constitutional issue and more of a decency issue. This is not McCarthyism. This is not government attempting to direct content. It is a question of logic, and a question of decency. If the police can arrest, fine and charge a person for indecent exposure for going streaking at night, why can’t the FCC do the same if one decides to take their clothes off on-camera in front of an audience of millions?
The faster these broadcasting stations figure out that cursing, blood, gore and beautiful, half-naked women do not necessarily translate into a ratings bonanza in the free broadcasting channels, the faster they’ll get back to making shows worth watching again. This is not the fifties, nor is there any longer a Joseph McCarthy going after people for expressing a view. This is about adherence to decency, not sanctioning people’s rights. Even the Hollywood Ten, if they were around today, would probably shun this entire process and call it a fiasco, then get back to writing good shows. Maybe, fingers crossed, the Supreme Court ruling will lead to the screenwriters of the present to do just that.