The Two-Faced Networks

A war has begun. The four largest broadcast television networks and 800 of their affiliates are taking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to federal court. For the public, the claim is that the FCC’s latest fine of CBS is unconstitutional and does not apply a clear and consistent standard on matters of decency.

It’s true that the FCC has not always come to agreement on fines with perfect consistency. But for anyone following the decency debate, this network argument is drop-to-your-knees funny. The broadcasters, saying the regulators have an inconsistent standard on decency? The broadcasters rate their programs for parents using differing standards for each network, often for each show, with holes in the parental protections so broad you could drive a fleet of Hummers through it. And they think the FCC is inconsistent?

But that’s not what this network lawsuit is about. The real network viewpoint came through in the Frank Ahrens report in the Washington Post: The hope that this lawsuit "could become the test case awaited by broadcasters who seek to challenge the government’s ability to police the airwaves, the broadcasters acknowledge privately."

There’s a powerful underlying message in that "acknowledging privately" phrase. The networks are fighting a two-faced war. To parents and the general public, they talk of social responsibility, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars talking up their V-chip, and how they aid parents to navigate the channels. But in court filings, and in the councils of power, the networks are unmasked for what they are: people who believe in no limits, no standards, no scruples. It’s an industry that is just a profitable assembly line of garbage, and wants the "right" to offend many millions of families, using the public airwaves owned by those families to do so.

CBS displayed this hypocrisy over the Janet Jackson breast-baring incident during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004. In the immediate P.R. disaster that followed, CBS spokeswoman Leslie Anne Wade quickly offered apologies: "The moment did not conform to CBS’ broadcast standards and we would like to apologize to anyone who was offended." But now, CBS appeals to the FCC, arguing that the incident was not indecent.

So if it wasn’t indecent, why apologize? Because it’s a two-faced war. Tell the broad mass of Americans one thing, and tell the political elite something entirely different. And while we’re at it, let’s ask CBS this: If stripping your clothes off in front of millions of children during a sporting event does not constitute indecency, then what does?

The broadcasters are preparing yet another publicity blitz touting how they can help parents steer their way into a child-friendly television experience. But they’re also saying out of the other side of their mouth that the parents have no cause for alarm, because no one really knows what indecency is.

Stop right there. Who in his right mind would suggest no one knows what indecency is? Here’s Hollywood’s super-lobbyist Jack Valenti: "No one today knows what is indecent."

That’s just nuts. My 9-year-old son knows what’s indecent. What Hollywood is trying to say is that no one should have the right to be an arbiter of decency, in government or in the private sector, or in the living room. Hollywood should have unlimited power to dictate whatever it wants, period.

The networks are not looking for guidance. They’re not wounded victims of drive-by government seeking protection from puny pellets of fines. What they want is the legal right to prevent the public from exercising its rights as owners of the public airwaves. They are explicitly demanding the ability to drop F-bombs on children, whether it’s airing at 8 a.m. or 10 p.m., whether the profanity is intentional or unintentional, whether it’s an adverbial intensifier" (as NBC claimed in legal papers) or common back-alley verbal sewage.

They are waging war on the idea that the First Amendment has any limits for broadcasters, despite the long-standing legal precedents for limits as established by the Supreme Court. They cannot stand the fact that even liberal Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has declared that the First Amendment limits are greatest for broadcasters.

The broadcasters do have one serious political problem: the public. Despite the fact that broadcasters can make big money by shocking just a small percentage of Americans into watching their sludge, when the American public is polled, the vast majority is bothered by the sleazy tone of TV. Two-thirds of Americans say there’s too much sex and too much violence. Nearly two-thirds are bothered by the obscene language they hear.

Whether the broadcasters ultimately win or lose the day, one thing is clear: looking at any night of TV demonstrates you can’t trust their deeds. And with their words, now you know they have no standards, either.