O.J., “Kramer,” and Limits

Every once in a blue moon, a TV network is forced to acknowledge that there is such a concept as broadcast standards. There are societal lines that should not be crossed and there are limits to the glories of "creative integrity." It's too bad it took an extremely distasteful concept like Fox's book-and-TV-special featuring O.J. Simpson, with the former football star-turned-movie star-turned-murderer talking about how he would have killed his wife had he been the killer. This If I Did It book and TV interview monstrosity was deliberately planned for the last week of the November sweeps, and Simpson reportedly was to be paid a cool $3.5 million for his efforts.

It was a disaster. Fox News Channel discussed the story relentlessly, obviously promoting both the book and the upcoming interview, but it backfired and open revolt ensued. Fox-affiliates across America began rumbling that they would not air this sordid special. Bill O'Reilly called for a boycott of advertisers on the forthcoming O.J. event. Geraldo Rivera went nuclear. Rupert Murdoch finally had to intercede, and killed the entire project.

"This is an interview that no one thought would ever happen," Fox reality-show ringmaster Mike Darnell had proclaimed in announcing If I Did It a few weeks ago. That's because it never should have happened. But it's encouraging that in an age where many have felt public opinion makes no waves in Hollywood any more, it turns out there are limits to what garbage networks will put on the air. It didn't take a four-year investigation by the FCC to determine that this was inappropriate. There was public outrage so intense that it threatened the entire Fox empire, and that's why Fox dumped it.

Murdoch made the correct call, but as everyone at Fox knew, this open acknowledgment of a hideous miscalculation would trigger immediate derision, primarily from Fox's competitors. And then, while everyone at Fox was putting on the P.R. Kevlar, fate intervened to save the day. On the very day that Fox announced it was withdrawing both the O.J. book and the TV show, news emerged that another Hollywood has-been, comedian Michael Richards, went on a screaming frenzy at the Laugh Factory, using the N-word against two black men heckling from the audience.

Richards didn't kill anyone; he didn't even say this on television. But his ugly outburst was recorded on a cellular phone, and soon it could be seen all over the Internet. TV coverage followed. Newscasts censored out the racial epithets, but the large wave of negative publicity triggered the long tour of apologies and regrets for the suddenly pitiful Richards, beginning with a sympathetic appearance on CBS's David Letterman show.

Wait a minute. Did I just write that the networks censored something? Yes, indeed. Network television has established it can be sober, serious, and responsible about preventing racial slurs from marring the airwaves. They have employed a non-controversial community standard.

Even network newscasts are more than a bit wary. The racial slur can be used — but only by the race that it targets. Thus in one CBS News story on the word after the Richards outburst, everyone who said the N-word was a black person: the reporter Bill Whitaker, Jesse Jackson, comedian Chris Rock, and USC professor Todd Boyd. White reporters don't use the word. When NBC's Jamie Gangel interviewed rapper 50 Cent, who probably uses the N-word 50 times daily, she made it a point to emphasize to him that, "I'd kill my kids if that ever came out of their mouths."

It is correct to treat the N-word as a cultural indecency. But if the networks have a standard for the N-word, why won't they maintain the same standard for the foulest of obscenities? And here's where irony enters. At this very moment, networks like CBS and Fox are in federal court, suing for the "right" to broadcast the F-word and the S-word at any time, in front of anyone, of any age, decrying that any citizen or FCC bureaucrat should mess with their constitutional rights to say whatever they please.

Left out of the broadcasters' legal briefs is the simple idea that neither the public nor the FCC would need to be spurred to action if the networks were to abide by the same cultural standards that condemn the use of the N-word, and stop bombing children indiscriminately with obscenities.

We still have, and will always have, community standards in the culture. It's neither strange nor tyrannical for the community to argue that broadcast networks abide by them. When they do, as they did with their self-censorship of the Simpson video and Richards tape, they do society a service. Why, oh, why, can't they do the same with gutter language in front of impressionable children?

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