As Frank Rich writes in today's New York Times, these outcries about indecency are manufactured by a small number of very active interest groups. As he points out in regards to the latest controversy, outcry over the indecency on Monday Night Football two weeks ago did not occur during or immediately after the broadcast, but more than a day later. In other words, after these groups got the word out to their members -- who apparently were nonplussed until they were informed otherwise.
He also cites a little FOIA discovery by Jeff Jarvis that the tiff over Married By America was (gasp!) vastly overstated. You recall that the FCC apparently received 159 public complaints against the show, which resulted in a $1.2 million fine imposed on Fox. Now, a fine like that couldn't happen to a nicer network, but Jarvis finds that the basis for it was spurious at best. Here is Rich's synopsis:
Though the F.C.C. had cited 159 public complaints in its legal case against Fox, the documents obtained by Mr. Jarvis showed that there were actually only 90 complaints, written by 23 individuals. Of those 23, all but 2 were identical repetitions of a form letter posted by the Parents Television Council. In other words, the total of actual, discrete complaints about "Married by America" was 3.
That seems a rather thin basis for exerting regulatory muscle.
This story has been commented on widely in the blogosphere already, but I want to add two more thoughts to the discussion. First, these moralistic rabble rousers have one clear advantage in a fight like this: Many of the things they criticize certainly are crass. While I believe the FCC is overstepping its authority and networks are exercising unnecessary and potentially damaging self-censorship in order to stem its wrath, I can't exactly defend Married By America with full heart. The MNF controversy doesn't have quite the right ring, either: "I will not jump naked into the arms of Terrell Owens on national TV, but I defend to the death Nicolette Sheridan's right to do so."
In a perfect world, all this reality TV drivel would go the way of "Cop Rock" and "My Mother the Car." No, the best ammunition we have against these groups is not to defend network marketing and reality TV per se, but to expose, as Jarvis and Rich do, the utterly cynical manipulation of public morals by these groups and the capitulation by the FCC.
Second, while we should fight their efforts, we should not be surprised. No, not because they are crazy moralistic right-wingers at war with modernity, though there is that. Instead, these are interest groups who seek to maintain an active and generous membership and attract more dues-paying members. This kind of publicity is golden for them, whether or not the FCC comes down hard on ABC and Fox. (Of course, if it does then that's icing for them). With conservatives in control of the White House and Congress and with the federal judiciary soon to become a wholly owned subsidiary, the mainstream media continues to be fodder for their membership drives.
When I was working on the Hill, my boss got a weekly tally of petitions, cards, letters and phone calls (this was in the pre-email days) received by the office on various topics. The staffer responsible for the list separated the form letters from the letters drafted personally. It is my understanding that network executives on the receiving end of the campaigns to save the latest greatest ratings-challenged show on TV also separate the form letters from the personal letters.
One would think the FCC is smart enough to do the same. There are three possibilities to explain their apparent failure to do so: They are too lazy to keep separate tallies, they are too naive to realize some are just form letters, or they are predisposed to believe such letters and therefore have no interest in discounting them. You be the judge.