WASHINGTON -- Between the Federal Communications Commission and a coterie of angry members of Congress who are egged on by activist citizens' groups, the radio and television industry is as sensitive to even borderline scatological programming as it has been in the last 50 years. The slightest tint of blue will send the industry's executives scurrying for cover these days.
That is, of course, the broadcast variety. Cable channel pooh-bahs and those running paid radio like Sirius don't seem to have a concern in the world except to keep the same thing from happening to them. For this, they must rely on First Amendment protections not afforded those who are using the public airways, contending that privately subscribed entertainment is exempt from censorship under the Constitution's guarantees of free speech.
Guess again if you think that argument will stop the critics and self-appointed watchdogs of American morals from challenging the ever more daring and sensational exhibitions that, by the way, have garnered all the industry prizes for acting, writing and producing of late. Ultimately the matter will have to be decided by the Supreme Court in one of those horrendously important cases that come down about every generation.
Surely at the top of the list of the most vulnerable targets for censorship is Home Box Office's "Deadwood" series, which just completed its second season and is one of the most remarkable productions in this permissive age of theater. It is purely and simply verbal pornography. The long running "Sopranos," once thought of as the quintessential abuser of acceptable dialogue and immorality pales in comparison. Yet "Deadwood" is also as brilliant in acting, setting, costuming and overall production.
The writing sans profanity is sensational. Its phrases are close to Shakespearean as is the plot and overall presentation with soliloquies and asides directed at the audience. But it is not rare to find six uses of the Anglo Saxon word for sexual intercourse in a 10-word sentence, clearly challenging the actor's communications skills. Even more distracting is the unrelenting use of the most offensive slang for oral sex and the female anatomy that would make the most hardened souls blush.
While shows like this on the premium pay channels would seem to be immune for the present from an expansion of the "indecency" regulations now being imposed on broadcast television, it could be only a matter of time before they too come under assault from those who believe they have the right to protect our morals. In fact, extension of these rules to regular cable and satellite television and radio is the object of legislation proposed by the chairmen of the Senate and House Commerce committees, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and Rep. Joe Barton of Texas. The proposal has the backing of Kevin Martin, the new chairman of the FCC.
This proposal seems way out of line. The regulation of broadcast radio and television stems from the fact the airways are considered public. One need only own the proper receiver to access their signals and those who broadcast them must meet and adhere to certain standards to be licensed by the government. Both cable and satellite systems are privately subscribed to and would seem outside the purview of government regulators. Because cable and satellite systems have become pervasive, however, lawmakers and government policy wonks increasingly contend their content should come under the same standards as the broadcast variety.
What Stevens' and Barton's proposal would do is to relieve Americans of the responsibility for controlling their own viewing and listening habits and those of their children even though they are laying out a considerable amount of money to make those decisions on their own.
Should the Stevens-Barton legislation be adopted, which seems doubtful at this stage, the next step would be to include the premium channels. Both are on the same subscription basis, after all, with the premium channels just a pricey add-on to the regular monthly fee for basic programming.
On a recent trip to the Midwest, I found very few who had seen even one episode of "Deadwood." While reasons varied, the most heard was a concern about its excessive language and violence. That seems solid confirmation that Americans are capable of making their own choices.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.