By John Stang
This is normally not a topic that I would want to blog about, but this story in the Economist made me ponder about the notion of indecency and the changing media market:
The FCC has long barred profanity and nudity during waking hours, although it used to take a laxer attitude towards isolated incidents. The Supreme Court upheld its rules in 1978, despite their impingement on free speech, on the basis of a law banning smut on the radio. But the broadcasters complain that the FCC’s drive for decency is inconsistent, unnecessary and increasingly quixotic. Why, they ask, should swearing be permissible in some circumstances (broadcasts of “Saving Private Ryan”, a gritty war film) but not in others (awards shows populated by foul-mouthed celebrities)? Is it really necessary to protect the public from swear words, when viewers can so easily vote with their remotes? Above all, while the court allowed the airwaves to be policed in 1978 because they were a scarce, publicly owned resource, does that still make sense in an era of cable, satellite and YouTube? After all, some 85% of households in America now subscribe to some sort of pay television, and almost 70% have broadband and thus face constant exposure to cursing and smut.
Judging by their questions to the broadcasters’ lawyers, however, not all the justices are convinced. All the government is asking for, said John Roberts, the chief justice, “is a few channels where you…are not going to hear the s-word, the f-word”. Moreover, as the PTC points out, in spite of the proliferation of viewing options, broadcasters remain pre-eminent. Of the 100 most popular shows last year, 89 were on broadcast networks, not cable. Some 114m people watched this year’s half-time show, making it—swearing, middle finger and all—the most widely seen television programme in American history.
Two things grab my eye here. First, is how federal regulation is slow to adapt to new social climates. With the advent of subscriber cable and online streaming, consumers can now chose what content they want to see and can skip all the indecent parts of a show or a movie if they want. Unfortunately, the slow, bureaucratic nature of the FCC and the cumbersome method of writing new regulations just cannot keep up with this rapidly changing market. We see this in the financial sector too. The Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill might have tried to be ahead of the curve on regulating the derivatives market, but by the time the law and all the rules are implemented companies will have found a new lucrative way to make money. This makes Dodd-Frank quickly look like a dinosaur.
The second part is about the way society views indecency in a certain context. I’ve never really understood regulating swear words (sexual content I can see) because often it is used so much in the private conversations anyway and children will eventually see it in another format anyway that it kind of seems like a futile exercise. Essentially, we regulate swear words in order to teach children appropriate language for certain venues. Not to say little Johnny should have to hear the words “shit” and “fuck” all the time on television, but reasonable moderation of language is better than draconian overkill.