Robert Wright: The CEO of Silliness

The late Steve Allen used cite a delicious analogy to describe why the public airwaves should be kept free from offensive content. If a stranger walked into your house, stood before your children in the living room, and started stripping and cursing, would you feel their innocence had been violated? Why then, he’d ask, should TV networks be allowed to do the same, using the airwaves owned by those very parents?

NBC/Universal CEO Robert Wright might offer a different perspective. Faced with this scenario with his grandchildren, he might instead praise the intruder’s "creative integrity."

In his distinguished capacity as head of the NBC empire, Wright has pronounced from the hallowed editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal that dictatorship is on the march in television. The threat of fines from the FCC has created a "climate of self-censorship," an unmistakable "chill in the airwaves," in which "the viewing public is the biggest loser."

He lauds his own talent at prediction, and how he warned in the same newspaper in 2004 that the titans of "creative integrity" in Hollywood would look less obscene than those who would urge the government to punish the broadcasting of obscenity. (How Orwellian: Freedom is slavery, and opposing obscenity is obscene.)

Watch a week of Wright’s NBC, and decide if you’ve just watched a schedule full of chilly self-censorship. It’s more likely you’ll seE a lot of violence, a lot of sexual themes and scenes, and coarse dialogue, including language that would be edited out of this newspaper as obscene if I were to repeat it.

You won’t be running for your rhetorical parkas from the chilling effect. The only recent chill discovered on NBC was that company’s Saturday-morning censors slicing any mention of God out of the "Veggie Tales" cartoons for little children.

Wright fancies himself as an enthusiast for technology as our solution to every problem in television. He suggests that the V-chip blocking technology is a "21st-century solution," unlike those fines of a "bygone era." But Wright doesn’t say that his own NBC went for years refusing to provide the "content descriptors" that would enable V-chips in TV sets to work.

Instead, he makes a complete, head-over-heels fool of himself, boasting that broadcasters are "the most responsible, community-focused providers of programming in the business." This is about as plausible as claiming Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl flash was a public service announcement on the perils of designer clothing.

Wright further argues that, with the rise of media technology — and the potential absorption of minors in the staggering media choices of 100 cable channels, TiVo recorders, video-on-demand services and DVDs — why should broadcast networks be saddled with any expectations of community standards, like a "family hour"?

Children watch more cable, he says, and "spend time on the Internet with unlimited access to material of every description." This is really the 60-something CEO arguing with all the sophistication of a spoiled 10-year-old child: "Why do I have to do the chores? No other kid on the block is doing chores!"

More precisely, he is arguing that broadcast TV, as the oldest technology, is being discriminated against. In his Journal screed, he tries to use mathematics to underline the pointlessness of the parents-decency movement. FCC fines are "doomed to failure" since 85 percent of households have cable or satellite TV, and two-thirds of the households who get broadcast TV only have no children in the house. Thus, the FCC is "basing its actions on a policy that is relevant to 5 percent of households."

What kind of an argument is this? People with cable access don’t care about broadcast-TV indecency? People who don’t have children in the house (grandparents, uncles and aunts, priests) don’t care about indecency?

But he’s playing with numbers, so let’s reply with the same. Bob Wright’s empire at NBC/Universal includes full or partial ownership of 18 — yes, 18 — different networks. That means they have the ability to put out 432 hours of programming daily. Total number of hours regulated by the FCC? Ready? Sixteen hours. Only 3.7 percent of Wright’s programming is under the FCC’s purview, yet he can’t even bend a muscle to be a nice "community-based provider of programming" on less than 4 percent of his airtime.

Wright devotes hundreds of words to the denunciation of the FCC and a dismissal of anyone who cares about decency on the public airwaves, but he never gets to the point. What Wright is presently lobbying for in legal briefs and government halls is simply the "right" to drop the F-bomb or the S-word on national television, at any time, anywhere, in front of anyone. He’s lobbying for a large weekly oil spill to be spread across the cultural landscape.

If I were Robert Wright, I’d make it a point not to get to the point, either.