A Return to Community Standards?

People who don’t like moralizing say you can’t legislate morality. But the legal and regulatory arrangements made in Washington inevitably affect the moral climate. When it comes to issues like morality on television, Washington has only become the arbiter because Hollywood doesn’t listen to moral complaints. Up until now, the television network titans haven’t even listened when their own affiliates in Flyover Country expressed moral objections.

As the television networks have raced to the bottom to produce the filthiest, dirtiest, and bloodiest programming, owners and station managers at network affiliates have been outraged that the Congress and the Federal Communications Commission would move to fine them and hold them responsible for content they did not control and were given little advance notice was headed their way.

All this anger and a lot of negotiation led to a surprising letter to the FCC, submitted on June 9. Seven years after affiliate stations filed a complaint to regain some measure of control, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and their local affiliates have asked the Commission to ratify their new agreement to restore powers to affiliate stations that the networks had usurped.

The networks and the local stations agreed that affiliates will now retain ultimate control over programming. The networks cannot hinder or prevent affiliates from rejecting shows they feel are “unsatisfactory, unsuitable or contrary to the public interest,” or prevent them from preempting for “programming of greater local or national importance.” The FCC is expected to quickly rubber-stamp this agreement.

There are some conditions on this right-to-reject rule. Affiliates do not have an “unfettered right” to pre-empt, but the networks cannot limit that right just to breaking local news events. Stations must be allowed to pre-empt programs they feel are against their community’s public interest. Stations must also be allowed to pre-empt unsuitable programming even if they have not done so with a similar program in the past. They also agreed that the networks should not impose any penalties, financial or otherwise, for rejected programming.

At first blush this sounds like a victory for those – like me – who feel the TV network programming executives sneer at the values most Americans embrace. Federal communications law and obscenity law reserves a role for “community standards,” but Hollywood has clearly imposed a national standard (or lack of standards) on TV programming. Will the anything-goes morality of Manhattan network executives or Beverly Hills screenwriters be curbed by the less glamorous, more traditionalist impulses of small towns in red states?

I suppose the answer depends on how bold affiliates are willing to be. Some station managers might pre-empt on principle, but most would be seen as making the decision to avoid the potential FCC fines for indecency. Pre-emptions have occurred in the past few years, but they are very rare and have little impact on network decision-making. Hollywood’s producers of “edgy” material and their allies in the snobbish ranks of TV critics tends to chortle when an isolated affiliate or two in Alabama or Oklahoma says “no thanks” to a seriously racy or violent program.

But upon a closer analysis, the new agreement between the networks and their affiliated stations is a double-edged sword. By placing a greater legal burden on the local stations, the TV networks could perceive they can operate with carte blanche. They could produce even more graphic and gratuitous material and put it out on their networks, while placing the entire blame for a community standards violation on the local broadcasters. Perhaps this is an overly-cynical view, but unfortunately I’ve seen it play out precisely this way before.

When the V-chip was first introduced back in the 1990’s, the networks at first threw a hissy-fit, decrying it as censorship. But upon further analysis, they saw it as the Trojan Horse that it ended up being. They were able to broadcast grotesque programming that was an affront to every possible community decency standard, but they were able to say “Hey, we warned you. If you don’t like it, use your V-chip.” Because they could hide behind the warning system, they dramatically raised the ante on profanity and smut on the public airwaves.

If there is truly any merit to this new agreement, we’ll know very quickly. CBS affiliates should move immediately to invoke their newfound preemption liberties. Just this year, CBS has seemed to dare affiliates to protest with its choices in programming. Start with its decision to promote its depraved Showtime series “Dexter” from pay-cable to over-the-air broadcast TV. “Dexter” is a serial killer who’s somehow morally ambiguous enough that viewers are encouraged to root for him to evade capture and kill and mutilate again.

When activists complained, the affiliate stations claimed they had no power to resist imposing shows like “Dexter” on their communities. Now they do.

Profiles in courage may be rare, since affiliates will be nervous and reluctant to pre-empt episodes of a series that may have a devoted (and twisted) fan base. What’s more likely to be affected are one-shot specials designed to goose ratings through shock value, like the less than half-dressed “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show” (complete with “butt cam”) or the “Elite XC Saturday Night Fights,” where viewers can watch someone’s face get walloped to a bloody pulp in slow-motion, high-definition replays.

The newest opportunity for pre-emption is also on CBS — the wife-swapping, orgy-celebrating, drug-glamorizing 1970s series “Swingtown.” This hour of wallowing in suburban sexcapades during the Polyester Decade may not last the summer, but it’s definitely an example of CBS having no standards – unless it’s making sure there are at least seven sex scenes per hour. Activists are already urging affiliates to pre-empt the show, especially in the Central and Mountain time zones, where it airs at 9 pm local time.

Local station managers may think the new situation allows them more freedom, but it also awards them quite publicly with a new responsibility to the community. Will they stand up for the people and offer a competing cultural power center? Or will they continue to stay quiet and cooperate in spreading the worst Hollywood has to offer?

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  • Dexter is not merely a serial killer. The promos I saw when the show was first produced strongly suggested that he is a vigilante cop serial killer (who, unlike every other serial killer in the world, doesn’t kill to satisfy his sexual dysfunction, but out of a desire for “justice”).

  • Cooky642

    Thank you, Mr. Bozell, for this article. It reminded me why I gave up network television viewing 10 years ago.