A year that leaves b’casters feeling fined

If indecency police won't go away, can't we at least put them to better use?

BROADCASTERS CAN RING IN the new year singing revised lyrics to a popular REM tune: “It’s the end of the year as we know it, and I feel fined.”

Whatever other media trend stories emerge from 2004 (and trust me, there will be plenty), none was less anticipated than the Super Bowl breast escape that unleashed a staggering flurry of indecency fines. The Federal Communications Commission proceeded to bombard radio and TV outlets with penalties totaling $7.7 million, almost 10 times the combined tally imposed during the previous nine years.

That money, once collected, will go into the U.S. Treasury and translate to a little more than 2¢ per resident. This troubles me on two levels: First, if you’re going to siphon money from broadcasters, why not at least put it to better use? And second, I feel guilty receiving my portion, frankly, because I enjoy a lot of allegedly indecent material about which regulators have become so hysterical.

On the former point, aspiring smut squelchers would possess far more credibility if they actually stood for something beyond just eradicating that which offends them. And before anyone responds by saying they want more “family programming,” consider the pathetic audience for the WB’s Thursday telecast of the Family Friendly Programming Awards, which was more than tripled by “WWE Smackdown.” Sorry, but marketplace forces don’t always favor such an approach.

A MORE BENEFICIAL APPLICATION of those freshly harvested millions would be to support public broadcasting initiatives for educational and public affairs programs, which increasingly earn short shrift in the rough-and-tumble of commercial television. Granted, such financing alone won’t lead horses (or kids) to the trough, but at a time when children’s shows push toy lines and discussion shows devolve into shouting matches, there’s a more compelling argument to assist truly laudable fare that might languish otherwise.

It would take an act of Congress to approve such allocations, which could fly using the rationale that, say, Howard Stern listeners (and I’m frequently one of them) don’t deserve the money. Heck, we’re part of the problem, making so-called indecency profitable for companies like Viacom, whose Infinity Broadcasting unit has repeatedly found itself in the FCC’s crosshairs.

Tempting as it is to dismiss indecency as election-year posturing, both Democrats and Republicans are unlikely to let the issue die. Just as Bill Clinton demonstrated his “family values” credentials by pushing through the V-chip, the Democratic Leadership Council’s current chiefs recently stated in the Wall Street Journal that their party should endeavor to help parents “protect their children from a coarsening culture.” For the left, bashing Hollywood is always politically useful.

REPUBLICAN FCC CHAIRMAN Michael Powell, meanwhile, stressed in a New York Times op-ed piece that while committed to enforcing indecency statutes, he doesn’t relish the role of content nanny. Besides, he’s too busy squiring along deregulation, which is far more crucial to media barons in the long run than an occasional wrist slap for salty language.

So as long as fines are destined to keep rolling in, I feel obligated to donate my share to PBS and urge fellow consumers of sleaze to do the same.

If nothing else, think of it as a way of putting your 2¢ in.

CRITIC’S DROOL PAD: December has turned out to be a grand month for TV drama. This week’s episode of a resurgent “The West Wing” continues to offer anything-goes twists in its build-up to electing a new president, while HBO’s “The Wire” closes its astonishing third season Sunday, culminating an ingenious plot in which a world-weary police captain legalizes drugs in his district.

By the way, the latter series contains graphic sex, ample profanity and unflinching violence. And the only indecent act I can see is that more people haven’t been appreciating it.

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