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Nets practice role of standard-bearer

Activist groups acting as public's watchdogs

Will the debate over indecency be remembered as a minor skirmish or a turning point in the culture wars?

While it’s too soon to tell, what is certain is that politicos right now are the ones calling the tune and broadcasters have felt obliged to dance as fast as they can.

Galvanized by the conservative base, a swathe of politicos has called for a crackdown on broadcast indecency, even raising fines to as much as $500,000 per offense.

In turn broadcasters have put on their furrowed brow faces — even as they privately decry the hypocrisy and unfairness of it all. (Opportunistic politicos tend to embrace family values in an election year, broadcasters point out; and, they add, cable, which is not regulated by the FCC, gets away with murder onscreen.)

“I think that people were annoyed at media and entertainment in general, and lumped us all together — broadcast networks, cable, shock jocks, rap, hip hop,” one NBC topper says.

In any case, in the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s bared breast on the Super Bowl, broadcasters have made some gestures of compliance:

  • Disclaimers have popped up on a number of primetime shows.

CBS warned of “offensive” content before “Survivor: All Stars” naked contestant Richard Hatch came in close contact with a female contestant. On reality shows, Fox is not only bleeping bad language but slapping a gray bar over the mouths of naughty folk so viewers can’t read lips.

  • Network standards and practices divisions have been reawakened from a decade-long stupor. They’re hatching content warnings for anything remotely suggestive. An episode of “The OC” recently carried such a label for relatively innocuous dialogue about a teenage character losing his virginity.

  • Delays have been put in place on all live award shows–even the Academy Awards.

Nets are giving their employees crash courses on how to operate such delays and are reminding camera crews how to pan quickly away in the event of plunging necklines and the like.

Net execs say an atmosphere of “cultural McCarthyism” has descended in the wake of Jackson’s halftime fiasco.

Certainly the climate was different before this latest cycle of moral activism.

Federal Communications Commission records show that since January 2000, 40 broadcasters were found to have aired indecent or obscene material. Only two were TV stations; the rest were radio stations.

Last October, the FCC ruled that NBC wasn’t in violation of indecency rules for an outburst from Bono — “this is really, really fucking brilliant” — during his thank-you speech at the 2003 Golden Globe Awards, which the Peacock carried live.

The FCC defines indecent speech as any language that depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs that are patently offensive as measured by “contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.”

In its Bono ruling, the FCC said while the use of the word “fucking” may have been offensive, it was used only as an adjective.

But that was pre-Boobgate.

Now, given the political winds, the FCC may reverse that ruling. “Community standards” will have taken a huge step backwards.

The most vociferous politicos claim that the public is demanding a cleanup of the airwaves. While special-interest groups are vocal on the subject, it’s not clear that the average household is so concerned.

Consider this: For years, TV Guide rated TV shows. When the publication stopped carrying the ratings last fall, it got nary a peep from the public.

Still, something has chilled the air. Activist groups like the Parents Television Council have released decency guidelines for years, but few paid attention. It was the PTC which spearheaded the e-mail and letter-writing campaign protesting Jackson’s breast exposure and, in this case, its efforts paid off.

“I’ve been in this business for a while, and I know these things run in cycles, but things seem to be of serious consequence right now,” one Fox exec says. “This is the first time in the history of the FCC that the bar has been raised to this degree in terms of raising fines. It portends something that we all take very seriously.”