Washington’s current obsession with indecency wouldn’t make a very enticing movie or TV show except for the possible titles, which include “The Passion of the Copps,” “The Madness of Commissioner Michael,” and my personal favorite, “Copps Gone Wild.”Those would be references to the Federal Communications Commission’s Michael Copps, whose laudable crusade against unfettered concentration of media has segued into a misguided jihad to purge the airwaves of smut, fruitlessly trying to tamp a host of genies back into their bottles. In doing so, Copps and his fellow commissioners have demonstrated the difference between reasonable regulation and government intrusion. Thanks to his stance on media consolidation, I tend to view Copps with compassion, likening his situation to that of any married guy or father who can hear himself talking while the loved one ignores him. The experience is enough to drive anyone a little nuts. That’s the most flattering way to characterize the commissioner’s overheated pronouncements regarding indecency in the 11 weeks (honest, that’s all it’s been) since Janet Jackson used the Super Bowl halftime show as a venue to model nipple-ware. Outnumbered by a Republican majority under pro-business FCC Chairman Michael Powell, Copps was accustomed to railing against relaxation of media ownership rules to little avail. Since the Super Bowl jump-started the indecency issue, however, his statements — and those of a few other Beltway potentates have reached blood-in-the-water stridency. Indeed, even many that sided with Copps’ initially must be growing uncomfortable as he keeps noticing new wrongs that need righting. Yes, broadcasting has become embroiled in a “race to the bottom,” as he’s fond of saying, but Copps and others haven’t stopped at the usual targets. Recently, Copps noticed daytime soap operas are “pretty steamy for the middle of the afternoon,” which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been home before dark in the last, oh, three decades or so. He has also become near-obsessed with showing the FCC’s teeth by revoking station licenses over indecency violations, which is tantamount to assessing the death penalty for a couple of speeding tickets. Copps has also raised the issue of adding advertising to the smut patrol’s beat, while like-minded legislators push to include cable and satellite TV. As for the industry’s attempts to wriggle free by promoting the V-chip, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) was quoted as saying, “Rather than warning people that the river is polluted, why not take the pollution out?” The simple answer is that a lot of people — even in Kansas — like what they find in the river, whether it’s Howard Stern or “Real Sex.” And many of those who don’t aren’t interested in the government posting “No swimming” signs. As evidence, check out a recent TV Guide poll. The results pointed to solid majorities who say there’s too much sex and violence on TV — skewed, no doubt, by the fact that there’s no appropriate way to tell a pollster, “Yes, I love sex and violence.” Yet at the same time, only one in five respondents agreed that the government should take a hand in curbing content, either through legislation or fines. Perhaps that’s because the public inherently understands that which regulators don’t — namely, that the sheer volume of programming renders efforts to hold broadcasting accountable as pointless as it is arbitrary. In February, Copps insisted over lunch that he is simply committed to enforcing the indecency statute, exhibiting little sense of how amorphous and transitory such standards are — including the distinction, as USA Today critic Robert Bianco rightly observed, between indecency and mere tastelessness. As for the suggestion that fuzzy guidelines compel broadcasters to try to anticipate what will offend the FCC’s fragile sensibilities, Copps said, “I’m not at all concerned about overreaction on the part of the industry. I’m concerned about under-reaction.” To be fair, unlike his colleagues, the commissioner is no Mikey-come-lately to this issue. Copps made this point long before Jackson bared hers, whether it was complaining about Stern or getting his panties in a bunch over the “Victoria’s Secret” lingerie special, complaining that his daughter, among others, was offended by it. “She’s a new mother, and when her child gets (to a) TV age, he should see wholesome programming,” he said. Copps again decried indecent programming in July, saying TV’s current state is “not what the pioneers of the great broadcast industry had in mind when they brought radio and television to us.” Actually, those pioneers created a medium through which to sell the products of sponsors that oversaw programming. In that respect, TV is increasingly returning to a similar model as advertisers assume more authority over shaping content or insidiously weaving ads into programs, which hardly strikes me as progress. What has always been clear is that those sponsors and their consumers are the true arbiters of what’s acceptable — the same sponsors, by the way, that gave us flatulent horses and erectile-dysfunction ads during the aforementioned Super Bowl. This mantra about viewer choice can be heard all over — even in such unlikely places as Fox’s online message boards for “The Swan,” the depressing new series that puts two women through plastic surgery each week and then picks a “winner” to compete in a beauty pageant. Several people signed on to say how hideous the premise is, only to be shouted down, cyberspace-style, by loyal viewers. “If you have a problem with it, or any other show, don’t watch it,” one posted. “No one is saying just because it is on that you have to watch it,” another protested. “I don’t like ‘Fear Factor’ … (but) I am not mad at the TV station for having it on the air. Some people want to see that kind of thing. So my advice to you is just change the channel!!” Ah, out of the mouths of would-be babes (if only they could afford the surgery). Crusaders can rant all they want about an outraged public, but it’s a big lie. Because when it comes to pop culture, there is no monolithic “public” any more, only a balkanized audience with a few hundred channels from which to choose. The good news is that when Copps’ grandson grows up, he should be able to readily find whatever kind of “good” programming he wants, even if it’s porn or, the FCC willing, a 70-year-old Howard Stern.
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