Will the FCC defer to the public for TV decency standards?
In case you haven’t heard, the Federal Communications Commission recently announced it is considering relaxing decency standards that govern profanity and nudity on TV broadcasts. Before I go on, I know what you’re thinking: “Wait a minute! Didn’t they do this already?”
Certainly, anyone who’s watched television over the decades has noticed a marked increase in sexual frankness and profanity on network programs, “wardrobe malfunctions” notwithstanding. But why would the FCC get more lax, possibly allowing f-bombs and female frontal nudity during primetime? Perhaps a little movie history can shed some light …
Bye-bye Production Code
From the 1930s to the 1960s, U.S. movie content was governed by Hollywood’s own self-policing Motion Picture Production Code, often called the Hays Code in honor of its administrator, ex-Postmaster General Will Hays. In addition to prohibiting graphic content, the Code included such guidelines as “Clergy must not be ridiculed” and “Crime must be punished.” So what happened? Why did the Code crumble?
Well, adherence to the Code was always on a voluntary basis. Movies could sidestep the Code, usually with disastrous financial results. Filmmakers, however, intent on pushing the boundaries by exploring taboo themes, continued to challenge the Code, sneaking lewd or graphic content into their pictures. Eventually, some of these movies made money, such as The Pawnbroker and Some Like It Hot (in spite of, rather than because of, their spicy scenes), giving Hollywood the excuse it was looking for to abandon the Code altogether. At that point, the MPAA developed movie ratings that have evolved into the present system of G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17.
But a funny thing happened. When the Code was dissolved, weekly movie attendance plummeted. Average attendance went from 44 million in 1965 to a dismal 17.5 million in 1969, and those numbers stayed low.1 It was as though disenchanted moviegoers said, “If this is the type of fare you’re serving, we’ll go on a diet.” Clearly Hollywood had alienated its audience, substituting instead its own personal tastes.
In his book Hollywood vs. America, film critic Michael Medved spends 345 pages discussing how Hollywood has broken faith with its audience by attacking religion, assaulting the family, and glorifying ugliness. That book came out more than 20 years ago.
We the People
Will the same happen for television? Is the FCC ready to shoot itself in the foot by thumbing its nose at audience demands?
The time to intercede is now, before the floodgates open further. Voices are already speaking out, including Parents Television Council president Tim Winter, who declared, “The FCC is supposed to represent the interests of the American public, not the interests of the entertainment industry.” But it will take more than one voice to convince an entertainment industry that insists on pushing the envelope.
The big question remains: Will you, the viewing public, speak loud enough for the FCC to take notice?
Follow this link to submit comments to the FCC regarding their proposed changes: http://apps.fcc.gov. The deadline is Tuesday.
1Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, Cobbett Steinberg, Vintage Books, 1978.
by Marty Nabhan, ClearPlay Pilot of the Airwaves
(Next: “Airing Grievances: How to let the FCC know the decency standards you expect”)