As a culture we have allowed almost every private or prurient thought to be shown or suggested on television or radio. When someone in the media crosses the few remaining lines, we cry to the FCC. But determining media content has never been the true role of government, and it has shown itself to be awkward, ineffective, and uncomfortable at drawing and enforcing the limits of permissible speech or content.
When a an sexually provocative skit is used to lead into a primetime football game, as ABC did last Monday; or a breast is bared during a Super Bowl half-time show, we turn to government to enforce our outrage. Politicians huff and millions of households bemoan the drift from decency. But the penalties are laughable—CBS was fined $550,000 for the Super Bowl offense; ABC’s punishment probably won’t reach that level—and unsatisfying.
The role belongs to the people; to all of us as viewers and consumers. Media content is a reflection of our cultural mores. Although we blame Hollywood or New York, our attention has to be corporate board rooms. Media content does not endure if it is not supported by advertisers and viewed by those who consume the advertisers’ products.
Our outrage is selective. The provocative ABC skit featured a comely actress from their surprise hit, Desperate Housewives, the content of which is so much more sexually explicit than the skit that it makes the reaction to the pre-football gambit a little hollow. We have come to the point as a culture where the only lines we draw are timetables, not decency or social edification. As long as Johnny or Suzy are probably in bed, roll out the crud.
As decision makers in the entertainment industry continue to push up against and frequently cross the lines of acceptability, the Americans who voted for moral values in the last election will push government to do something. However, the call for action is misdirected. It is for the newly discovered “values coalition” to organize consumer action, not government hand slapping.