High cost of indecency is %@#^ crazy

In dollars-and-cents terms, network executives could soon be better off bribing a congressman than inadvertently blurting out that one is “fucking brilliant.”

At least, that’s the goal of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and such like-minded groups as the Parents Television Council, which have once again seized upon televised “indecency” as a political issue, sensing that both parties have a soft election-year underbelly.

Never mind that the government’s approach to policing broadcast content has been “consistently inconsistent,” as another advocacy group, the Center for Creative Voices, put it last week. If you let the F-word or S-word or creative variations of either slip, whether as noun, verb or (in the case of Bono’s aforementioned exclamation on NBC) adverb, prepare to pay the price.

But what price, exactly? And does the punishment fit the crime?

Brownback’s bill — which majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) hastened through the Senate last week — would magnify the financial hit for indecency tenfold, to $325,000 for each transgression. And while a mere $32,500 might legitimately sound like a wrist slap to NBC or Fox, the larger sum is greater than the $250,000 Jack Abramoff was fined for his role in a scandal that included bribing members of Congress.

Sure, there’s also jail time involved, but scanning penal and safety codes, it’s hard to uncover many fines that rival the current indecency assessment, much less the proposed inflated penalties.

New York-based executives, for example, would only be fined $25,000 for unlawful distribution or possession with intent to distribute narcotics, as opposed to simply opiating the masses with sex, violence and profanity. Unlawful possession — which is often vital to help make lame sitcoms seem funnier — is a bargain, at $5,000.

Furnishing alcohol to a minor brings a $1,000 fine, meaning an adult could buy drinks for a high school graduating class of 324 and still get away for less than a single coarse utterance. “Come on, Dad, I’m not asking you to let them say the ‘F-word’ before 10 p.m.! I just want a keg at my party!”

For another $5,000, the same executive could get plastered and engage in felony driving while intoxicated.

Jetting West, it’ll set California programmers back a mere $250 for urinating or defecating in a transit facility, or carrying an explosive hazardous substance.

Sure, I suppose someone could argue that indecent content is the equivalent of polluting the airwaves, but my guess is most people would rather have their sensibilities offended by foul language than assailed by the above.

For those tempted to dismiss this as a joke, the fact remains that Hollywood has no natural allies in this battle other than First Amendment lawyers.

Before and during the Clinton administration, Democrats glommed on to “protecting kids” from TV, music and videogames as their go-to “family values” issue, knowing that much of Hollywood will support them regardless.

Besides, many genuinely believe that broadcasters should fulfill certain public-interest obligations in exchange for free use of the public airwaves.

Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps has also seized upon a content crackdown as a tool to flog big conglomerates, with which he’s dueled over consolidation of media ownership.

Of course, Mexican media giant Grupo Televisa is about to stage a classic end run around prohibitions against non-U.S. companies owning domestic TV stations by joining in the bid for Spanish-language net Univision, but in terms of public sizzle, how can an arcane transaction like that possibly compete with group sex on “Without a Trace” or Janet Jackson’s breast?

Copps will tell you he’s just enforcing the statute charging the FCC with oversight of broadcasters, even as cable programs like “South Park” thumb their nose at the commission by repeating “shit” 162 times, as the animated show famously did in a 2001 episode.

Yet in reality, content standards separating over-the-air TV from ad-supported basic cable have become a distinction with a difference in the minds of viewers, most of whom can’t even identify which networks provide the programs they watch.

Print outlets, meanwhile, risk looking hypocritical if they condescend to editorialize regarding the absurdity and crass political calculation in the government’s enforcement efforts, inasmuch as most can only vaguely reference words and images at the heart of the debate without violating the policies of a “family newspaper.”

Unfettered by such constraints, I’m free to say that whatever one’s ideological starting point, the entire situation — from attempts to define indecency guidelines to assessing reasonable penalties — is pretty fucked up.

Oh, sorry. Call the word police.

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