Committed to the First Amendment
Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/3/2002 7:00:00 PM
Shock jock Bubba, the Love Sponge, has just been acquitted of slaughtering a boar as part of an on-air stunt. Fox will follow its most recent reality offering—a glutton contest to see who could chug the most mayonnaise, for one—with a celebrity boxing match between Tonya Harding and Amy "Long Island Lolita" Fisher. Throw in the Fear Factor segment on drinking liquefied animal parts, including rooster testicles, spleen, gobs of fat and pig brains, and you've got a picture of why it is sometimes tough to defend this industry. Who was it that said reality programming is like heroin?
Whenever First Amendment defenders talk about holding their noses and defending anyway, this is what they are talking about.
The content calls above, however, fall under the category of each to his own taste (people do eat haggis, after all), though the word "pandering" has been competing with the word "Ugh!" to make it onto this page as regards this most recent trend (you will have noticed that both made it). But our criticism, which is meant to be a word of caution, or the internal debate that should go on at the networks about how much "pander programming" they can stomach is one thing. The government sticking its thumb on the scale is another, even if the scale contains pig brains.
Unfortunately, it was the combination of this sort of reality tripe with other forms of extreme speech that has the FCC worked up about broadcast content again. The agency is making it easier to make broadcast-indecency complaints and will assume that broadcasters are guilty of whatever is alleged unless they can prove their innocence. That is a troubling declaration from an agency whose ability to distinguish between smut and art is highly suspect, given its fine against Sarah Jones.
The FCC's renewed urgency on indecency enforcement smacks of Republican "family" values combined with Democrat social engineering. It stinks like day-old Fear Factor props.
Just do it
The NAB, NCTA and MPAA have filed for a stay of the FCC's video-description rules. The rules have already been challenged in court, so they have a perfectly sound argument for postponing implementation until that decision is made. They also raise defensible First Amendment issues about government-imposed creative speech. Lawyers could certainly argue, and do, that, unlike with captioning, there is a creative decision about what and how to describe the TV action not made clear by the dialogue. So here is what broadcasters should do if the court tells them they don't have to describe: Do it anyway. Take some fraction of that multibillion-dollar figure rightly celebrated as local broadcasters' investment in public service and invest it in video description. Not because they have to, but because it's the right thing to do.
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