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Recent Attacks Could Blow a Fiscal Chill Across Satire

Read enough First Amendment cases and you become familiar with the concept of a “chilling effect,” which refers to how placing restrictions on speech can lead to self-censorship.

In the wake of Sony’s trouble-plagued release of “The Interview” and the subsequent terror attack on the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, one suspects the big chill is already setting in.

That’s because for all the talk about protecting freedoms and “Je suis Charlie” declarations, the major media companies that greenlight movies and TV shows are, first and foremost, businesses. And while they have grown through mergers, that expansive size can sometimes expose a soft underbelly.

Part of the dialogue surrounding “The Interview” and Charlie Hebdo is that it’s precisely those kinds of properties — silly comedies and acerbic satire — that most need protection from those who would seek to silence them. It’s those voices, after all, that go out of their way to thumb noses at authority or trigger outrage.

By initially retreating, Sony overtly gave the impression of caving in to pressure, triggering charges of corporate cowardice.

Yet what Jon Stewart said on “The Daily Show” — that comedy “shouldn’t be an act of courage” — will be put to the test more subtly, without public fanfare or debate. There won’t be sweeping pro-clamations against taking creative risks, or even acknowledgement of such turns.

Change, rather, will happen in closed-door conversations, where there will be less of an appetite for thornier projects that are, strictly from a financial perspective, difficult to justify going to the mat to defend. The rationale won’t be politics but pragmatism — not “That doesn’t have the right to be heard or made” but “Let someone else do it” and “Who needs the aggravation?”

Should this prediction hold true, the gap will be between supporting an ideal concerning artistic integrity and the right to offend, and actually putting those widely held sentiments into practice.

Striking an iconoclastic tone, the New York Times’ David Brooks sought to distinguish serious thinkers from provocateurs. In a recent column, he noted that most members of the intellectual elite “don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor” that Charlie Hebdo made its trademark, drawing a line that suggested being “legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.”

In Hollywood circles, though, such distinctions become largely academic. Because while writing opinions is relatively cheap, producing, filming and distributing them generally isn’t.

Addressing journalists last week, Showtime entertainment chief David Nevins conceded that it’s “a bit of a scary time” to be a maker of political, boundary-breaking shows, adding that he hoped the creative community wouldn’t engage in self-censorship. And in a first-person piece for Variety, producer Harvey Weinstein said, “No one can ever defeat the ability of great artists to show us our world.”

While that may be true, the threat of extremism can erect roadblocks and speed bumps, which might be the most lingering legacy, sadly, of recent events.

Granted, it’s not uncommon for producers and executives to court controversy to get noticed. Amid an age of clutter and audience fragmentation, advocacy groups can function as unwitting allies by helping to promote shows, especially if their condemnation amounts to approbation to the target audience.

The cost-benefit ratio, however, has likely shifted. Although nobody will announce, “We’re out of the outrage business,” projects that once might have gotten the go-ahead will be passed over. As a consequence, professionally ambitious satirists — those who want their work to be seen and to get paid for it, along with making a point — will be incentivized and counseled by representatives to curb their creative instincts for mass-market projects.

Brrr. Anyone else feel that cold air seeping in?

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