Wednesday, October 13, 2004

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. The FCC is fining Fox Broadcasting $7,000 per participating station -- over a million dollars in toto -- for some raunchy bachelor/bachelorette parties shown on its "Married by America" reality show.

According to the FCC's 29-page(!) report on the incident, the Commission judges indecency by two criteria: "[it] must describe or depict sexual or excretory organs or activities... Second, the broadcast must be patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium." Fox thought its pixelation policy protected it on the first count, but the FCC demurs: "Even with Fox’s editing, the episode includes scenes in which party-goers lick whipped cream from strippers’ bodies in a sexually suggestive manner. Another scene features a man on all fours in his underwear as two female strippers playfully spank him. Although the episode electronically obscures any nudity, the sexual nature of the scenes is inescapable..."

A fair cop. But in Fox's defense, the FCC never fully addresses the "community standards" part of the test. (Maybe the Republican-dominated Commission did this on purpose to enhance their old pal Rupert Murdoch's grounds for appeal.)

The FCC has a broad bailiwick here, having previously decided that the "community" is really an idealized single figure: "[our] criterion is that of an average broadcast listener and, with respect to Commission decisions, does not encompass any particular geographic area."

Even if we accept this standard, I must say that if the Commissioners think the "average broadcast listener" -- or viewer, in this case -- can be offended by some pixelated porn, I would suggest that they don't watch nearly as much TV as their office would seem to demand.

While "Married by America" sounds gamey, I don't see how it could be worse than the premiere episode I recently viewed of "Boston Legal," which, like all David E. Kelley shows, regards human sexuality from the perspective of a retarded, priapic teenager. The episode featured a man walking around with no pants or underwear, an affair between William Shatner and the trophy wife of a geriatric client, and James Spader announcing "You had sex," as loudly and alacritously as if he had just found an Easter egg, in a room full of smirking lawyers.

As Kelley's general success shows, the "average broadcast viewer" eats this stuff up. While no genitals were exposed nor copulative acts simulated, the viewer was allowed to know that something nasty was going on -- something dark and corrupt and impossible to reveal -- something known to a depressing number of our fellow citizens as sex.

I left "Boston Legal" feeling besmirched. Now, if you know the kind of life I've led, you might question my sincerity, but let me say that it is not the sexual nature of the material that repels me, but the leering attitude. Let CBS run "The Teabaggers" in prime time, and so long as the behaviors on display are forthrightly sexual, and not embellished with pop-eyed voyeurs, mocking trombone wah-wahs, or hackneyed depictions of passion taken directly from Herbal Essences Shampoo commercials, I would be happy to see the show pumped into day-care centers nationwide.

But that's not going to happen anytime soon, so when producers scrounge for new thrills to offer viewers, these will be of the dank, half-concealed sort that incites "censorship" controversies and grainy ass-shots on the small screen. Actual sexiness will be absent, but some sense of transgression will steam off the product and the smell will keep the couch potatoes firmly planted.

Contrary to what the preachers say, the TV folk are not engaged in a full-on assault on American Values; theirs is more a skulking, schoolboy approach, which is not only enabled but reenforced by the hapless playground monitors of the FCC, who seem to know they are here to keep the lid on but loosely, so that both they and the industrious offenders they prosecute will, when the fireworks are over, never find themselves removed from their comfortable positions.

Meanwhile the ordinary American, after an after-dinner bout of Internet Porn surfing and the equally thrilling effort of concealing it from the spouse, will join the family in front of the Boob Tube, and together they will switch dreamily between shows starring people they admire, and shows starring people they would like to fuck.

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