Brought to You by the Letter F
There was much troubling activity on the indecency front last week (see story, page 1). With White House, congressional and FCC support, the law boosting indecency fines tenfold is a near shoo-in, thanks to some playground parlance—yes, your kids already know these words—that slipped past Standards and Practices.
Not wanting to offend their regulatory masters, broadcasters themselves are starting to join the chorus of critics. The only broadcast witness at a House hearing on indecency last week not only supported upping the fines and adopting an industrywide language code but even suggested on-air personalities ought to be issued permits. Then there are the affiliates who tag along, seeing an opportunity to gain an advantage in their battle with networks by suggesting that it is the affiliates' inability to preempt that prevents them from sanitizing their airwaves. With friends like these, the First Amendment has no need for enemies.
On the night before the hearing, in which the FCC had to defend its indecency policies, the commission just happened to hit Clear Channel with its largest proposed fine ever and to slap KRON-TV San Francisco, too. With FCC Chairman Michael Powell's support of the increased fines, the FCC appears bent on becoming an active content regulator.
Perhaps most troubling was Clear Channel's response to its fine. It asked the FCC to help the industry create a code of conduct covering both broadcast and cable. That smacks not of editorial discretion but of forced self-censorship.
There remain relatively infrequent curses in the vast ocean of television. They hardly justify an assault on the First Amendment, nor do they threaten to rend the moral fabric of our nation, the fulmination of politicians and the nattering of media nannies notwithstanding. Isn't a wounded economy and a worldwide terrorist threat enough to keep Washington busy?
Urbanity, thoughtfulness and wit were once spoken of in the same sentence with talk TV, and without a hint of irony. The primary reason: Jack Paar. His death last week, combined with the indecency flap in D.C., reminded us of the W.C. incident that prompted Paar's exit in the middle of a 1960 Tonight Show
broadcast. It was a time when a joke about the confusion between a "water closet" and "wayside chapel" was off limits. It seems unimaginably innocent now, which says a lot about how far we've come in allowing TV to reflect reality but also a little about what we've lost on the way. Joe Kennedy once credited an appearance by his son John on the Paar show with helping JFK win the presidency. If Camelot lost its king in 1963, it has now lost its jester emeritus.