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Smut-buster likes 'The Simpsons'



Published: Wed, June 29, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Brent Bozell, who runs the largest media watchdog organization in America, has a soft spot for some shows.

By GLENN GARVIN

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- It's a little like hearing Cotton Mather confide that he has a thing for witches. Brent Bozell, The Man Hollywood Loves To Hate, the TV filth-fighter and smut-smasher par excellence, the archnemesis of Dennis Franz's butt and Janet Jackson's nipple, has a confession: He's a secret fan of "The Simpsons."

That is, the Fox cartoon where dads cavort with strippers, kiddie-show hosts rob convenience stores, babies pulverize parents with mallets and gay characters marry one another in abject blue-state defiance of the law. The same one Bozell demanded the FCC bust last year for an episode in which a character, protesting a cut in school arts funding, carried a sign that read: DON'T CUT OFF MY PIANISSIMO.

"I think 'The Simpsons' is hilarious," Bozell says a little sheepishly. "I love 'The Simpsons.' But every once in a while, it just hits you right in the face. ... It would be a hilarious show without it, so why did you do it?"

This is a news flash, and not just to the First Amendment attorney who calls Bozell "devoid of humor, lustful after publicity, and vastly ignorant" or the network executive who derides him as "the guy who thinks he can take care of my kids better than I can."

Crossing enemy lines

To the FCC, whipped into a frenzy by the deluge of e-mailed complaints from Bozell's group, to the network executives cowed by his rages into pixilating everything from old women's cleavage to cartoon babies' butts, and even -- perhaps most of all -- to his million-member TV legion of decency, the Parents Television Council, it is liable to be a shock that in the privacy of his own living room, Bozell consorts with the enemy.

With those oversexed, underdisciplined "Friends," for instance. Last year, when 51 million other Americans were saying tearful goodbyes to the show as it ended its decade-long run, Bozell was filing an FCC complaint over an episode about a birthday cake decorated with a frosted penis. "Patently offensive," Bozell called "Friends" then.

Now, though, he says he may even have shed a tear or two himself.

"It's unquestionable that it was a very terrific, extremely high-quality show," Bozell says. "So much of it was so enjoyable for adults and even younger people. And yet so much of it also was really pushing the envelope. So can I say 51 million people are wrong? No, no, I can't say that.

"But even of those 51 million, I suspect, even the fans of 'Friends' would also acknowledge that 'Friends' could go a little overboard. Nobody is suggesting that 'Friends' the show ought not to have been on. What we're saying is some of the stuff on that show ought not to have been on."

That's considerably milder rhetoric than you see in the newsletters and press releases that come smoking out of Bozell's Parents Television Council. There, the cop show "The Shield" is an "assault on decency." MTV is "blatantly selling smut to children." The fast-food chains using an ad with a wetted-down Paris Hilton are "forcing American families to digest their filth."

Making an impact

The prose may be slightly purple, but it's effective. The FCC, which logged just 111 complaints about indecent broadcasts in 2000, received 1.4 million last year -- many of them from viewers armed with transcripts provided by PTC's squadron of smut detectors, who monitor hundreds of hours of television a week, noting everything from depictions of anal sex to use of the word "whore."

The avalanche of complaints played a major role in the record $7.9 million in fines slapped on broadcasters last year by the FCC. Meanwhile, PTC-organized advertiser boycotts drove dozens of sponsors away from risqu & eacute; cable shows. Congress began to pay attention, taking up legislation to jump indecency fines from $32,500 a crack to $500,000 and to extend FCC jurisdiction to cable TV.

"This group is having a real impact in Washington," says Adam Thierer, director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at the Progress & amp; Freedom Foundation. "They are coming to have the equivalent of a heckler's veto over a lot of decisions by the FCC and Congress regarding broadcast content."

That veto is starting to extend well outside the Beltway. Sixty-five ABC affiliates last year refused to run the network's feed of the film "Saving Private Ryan," citing fears that its use of the F-word would result in FCC fines. PBS chopped swear words from a documentary on the war in Iraq, and Entertainment Weekly cracked that CBS might retitle one of its sweeps specials "The D--k Van D--e Show Revisited."

Crusading to clean up TV

Fear and loathing of the PTC in Hollywood is so great that hardly anybody is willing to discuss the group on the record. "Why are you writing about them?" groaned an executive at one network under frequent PTC attack for raunchy content.

"Those airwaves are not owned by the networks that use them," Bozell insists. "They are owned by the public. The networks enter into a legal compact when they use those airwaves, wherein they pledge to abide by community standards on decency. A violation of community standards on decency is a violation of the law."

But what about, say, the 27 million people who tune in each week to watch the mixture of murder, adultery, statutory rape and S & amp;M games on "Desperate Housewives"? Don't they own the airwaves, too?

"That sounds impressive," Bozell retorts, "until you realize that we're a nation of some 295 million. Meaning that over 90 percent of Americans have chosen not to watch this 'No. 1' show."

Bozell's critics, however, argue that free speech is not a numbers game. "Even if the public owns the airwaves, it doesn't diminish the First Amendment rights of the people in the broadcast industry," says Thierer. The public, he points out, owns city streets, but that doesn't mean the government can censor the newspapers sold in sidewalk coinboxes.

The group is ready to embark on its next big campaign: cleaning up cable. The FCC has never had authority to regulate cable programming, but Bozell wants Congress to either extend the agency's authority, or force cable systems to let customers pick and choose channels one by one rather than in large packages.




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