THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joanna Weiss

The obscenity police

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / July 18, 2010

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WHAT I remember most about the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction,’’ during halftime at the 2004 Super Bowl, was how hard it was to figure out what was happening at all. Jackson’s breast was exposed for precisely nine-16ths of a second, and no matter how many times I pressed my TiVo’s “rewind’’ button, I still caught just a passing image of a star-shaped pasty.

Yet that moment came to symbolize a paranoid view of TV: At any moment, something naughty could jump out of the bushes and destroy what was left of American innocence. The FCC seemed to agree, with its policy of imposing stringent fines for flashes of nudity and the “fleeting expletives’’ emitted at the microphone at various live award shows.

On Tuesday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that the policy violates the First Amendment, a huge victory for the networks and the concept of free speech. How hard the FCC fights back will depend largely on politics. Paul Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University, says the urge to squelch the media is bipartisan; Bill Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act, which attempted to control speech on the Internet, but it was later thrown out by the Supreme Court.

This is an election year, and family-values groups are howling about the Second Circuit ruling, suggesting that the floodgates have been opened. But save for the fact that some network executives will no longer get shpilkes when the Grammys are on, it’s doubtful that anything will change.

No one is better at censoring the networks, after all, than the networks themselves, mindful of the need to please their audiences and avoid alienating their sponsors. (Newspapers do the same, which is why this column will use awkward substitutions.) Even in the “safe haven’’ hours of late-night TV, the networks are notoriously careful; when Milton native Jenny Slate accidentally said the f-word last year on “Saturday Night Live,’’ it was considered a mini-scandal for NBC.

On basic cable, which is exempt from the FCC’s decency rules, swear words tend to be used sparingly, concentrated in the later hours and grittier shows. And the smartest artists understand that a shocking word loses its power when overused — and that a bleep or an artful euphemism can have much more comic effect. Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,’’ whose viewers wouldn’t flinch at swear words, almost always bleeps them anyway. On her late-night talk show on E!, Chelsea Handler talks about sex a lot but uses the word “penetration,’’ which always gets a laugh.

But sometimes, particulary in the news, swear words have power that a euphemism lacks. At a congressional hearing about Goldman Sachs this spring, senators kept quoting an internal Goldman e-mail that called one of its derivatives a “sh--ty deal.’’ On his blog, Levinson mocked MSNBC for telling viewers the word rhymed with “kitty:’’ Who were they fooling, he asked, and what was the point? It’s more disturbing that the broadcast networks bleeped out the word on their news shows; they felt threatened by the government for airing testimony direct from a government hearing.

Just as the language of business has evolved, TV’s internal standards have obviously changed. As Trinity College professor Mark Silk points out, NBC voluntarily preempted a Jack Paar joke in 1960 involving the term “W.C.’’ (It’s quaint, but still funny. Bathroom humor never gets old.) These days, as the New York Times had fun pointing out, network TV characters commonly call each other “douche.’’

But changing standards is hardly an argument for censorship. Groups like the Parents Television Council — which is responsible for the bulk of this decade’s complaints to the FCC — have every right to make their voices heard. They don’t need the threat of a government ax to do it.

And whatever standards they ask the networks to uphold, they need to understand that it will never be enough to shield a kid from words that are easy to find outside the relative safe zone of TV. Despite last week’s ruling, Elmo won’t be dropping the f-bomb on “Sesame Street’’ anytime soon. But he already does it on YouTube, far more than you’d think.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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