In the great saga of the culture wars, an oddity has emerged: a story about a broadcast that didn’t inspire viewer complaints.
CBC’s web site carries a story about NBC’s New Year’s Eve edition of Leno, in which one M??tley Cr?ºe member says to another, “Happy fucking New Year, Tommy.”
(The CBC delicately blanks out the F word. However, I figure readers of this blog are conditioned by its title to expect a little profanity.)
According to NBC, as of Monday, the network had received exactly zero calls regarding “the incident.” And that, as we enter 2005, is apparently newsworthy.
The story goes on to mention that the FCC — the American telecommunications watchdog — has been cracking down on broadcast profanity, spurred by a surge in public complaints.
It’s part of the larger story that became one of the great tropes of the past year: how U.S. society is becoming a lot more militant about enforcing good manners and common decency (which translates to finding an onscreen depiction of sexual assault less offensive than an exposed nipple or someone saying “fuck”). And that in turn feeds into the whole story about how the Democrats lost the election because they lost touch with Middle American values.
The only thing is, it’s — with all due respect to the FCC — bullshit.
It turns out that “surge” is entirely manufactured. A single right-wing pressure group is responsible for a huge percentage of those complaints.
How huge a percentage? Try 99.8 per cent in 2003.
The group, the Parents Television Council, has launched what it calls “a massive, coordinated and determined campaign” to get the FCC to clamp down on the scourge of televised potty-mouth.
I heard this factoid in passing a few months ago, and figured it was just some wishful thinking from my buds on the left. Well, surprise: it’s from the media industry’s very own Mediaweek:
According to a new FCC estimate obtained by Mediaweek, nearly all indecency complaints in 2003‚Äî99.8 percent‚Äîwere filed by the Parents Television Council, an activist group.
This year, the trend has continued, and perhaps intensified.
Through early October, 99.9 percent of indecency complaints‚Äîaside from those concerning the Janet Jackson ‚Äúwardrobe malfunction‚Äù during the Super Bowl halftime show broadcast on CBS‚Äî were brought by the PTC, according to the FCC analysis dated Oct. 1. (The agency last week estimated it had received 1,068,767 complaints about broadcast indecency so far this year; the Super Bowl broadcast accounted for over 540,000, according to commissioners‚Äô statements.)
The prominent role played by the PTC has raised concerns among critics of the FCC‚Äôs crackdown on indecency. ‚ÄúIt means that really a tiny minority with a very focused political agenda is trying to censor American television and radio,‚Äù said Jonathan Rintels, president and executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, an artists‚Äô advocacy group.
So, since so much of the supposed furor is being generated by a tiny number of folks, it’s nothing to worry about, right?
Except that the cultural backlash myth keeps finding its way into the media, and the PTC’s role in inflating complaint numbers doesn’t. These kinds of things become self-fulfilling prophecies — and that, over and above the regulatory impact, is the PTC’s ultimate goal.