Some time soon, the Supreme Court will hand down its decision in a case that pits the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) against Fox TV. Really, it’s the FCC against the use of nudity and profanity on broadcast television.
While the court deliberated, so did I. Originally, I was planning to prepare this commentary as a reaction to the ruling right after the momentous decision came out. But the more I deliberated, the more I realized that this decision is about as momentous as whether to have hot or cold cereal for breakfast. The court could use a coin to decide this one, so little difference will it make.
Only one ruling matters in this case, and that’s the ruling every parent makes at home.
First, some context. The Court ruled in 1978 that the FCC could fine broadcasters for displays of nudity or profanity during prime time. But fines were rarely doled out. Then in 2003, Bono said the "f-word" on a live broadcast of the Golden Globes. The FCC started cracking down, and a case was born. Fox and other broadcasters are asking the court to overturn the 1978 ruling, arguing that in an era of freer regulation on cable, the law is outdated.
So what’s really at stake? The government believes there has to be a safe haven maintained so parents can put their kids in front of the TV at certain hours, turn to a specific channel, and not worry. Has anyone in the government watched TV lately?
You can keep banning nudity and the occasional swear word, but that won’t get rid of talk shows that discuss deviant sexual behavior, entertainment shows that feature a parade of celebrity misbehavior, newscasts highlighting the latest in local rapes and murders, and a plethora of "Law and Order: SVU" re-runs, where children are routinely kidnapped and abused.
Good thing the government is protecting your child from a glimpse of a nude behind.
During oral arguments, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. said that if the court were to overrule its 33-year-old decision, “the risk of a race to the bottom is real.” I’d say that race is over. We’ve been looking at the bottom for so long, looking at a naked bottom won’t really make a difference. It’s part of the bill we pay for freedom of expression.
The problem with regulation is that we can only regulate what we can regulate. It’s easy to regulate the f-word but not all the disturbing subject matter that finds its way into almost every sitcom, drama, and newscast.
For example, whether or not the Supreme Court overturns the law, a child will still be able to flip to an episode of Criminal Minds, where a killer is talking in detail about how he dismembers his victims. As long as the psychopath doesn’t use the f-word or moon the camera, apparently whatever else he says is fine.
And during the commercial break, the child can see an ad for a horrifically violent video game because the Supreme Court ruled last year that the government has no business safeguarding children from violent video games.
Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia made the point that unlike depictions of “sexual conduct,” there is no tradition in the United States of restricting children’s access to depictions of violence. He cited our tradition of “violent” fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood (See Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association).
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t be disappointed if the court rules in favor of the government. I’m ok with fining broadcasters for not bleeping out the f-word. I just wonder how it really makes a difference if we all know the word under the bleep. I have friends who use the replacement f-word, “Frickin’,” with the same intensity as they would use the real f-word.
If a word conveys the same meaning as another word that starts with the same letter and has the same number of syllables, is it really a different word?
The real decision – the only one that carries any weight – is the choice parents make about the amount and kind of TV their children watch. Parents have the right to ban TV shows from their house or ban TV altogether. Parents have the right and obligation to monitor what their children watch and to watch TV with them to provide context and discussion when difficult subjects come up.
No TV rating system, no government censor, and no Supreme Court ruling can alleviate parents of that responsibility.
Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.