Both of the TV sets in my small Brooklyn apartment are equipped with the V-chip. The one in the living room even has a whole “parental control” menu. As of July 1999, all sets 13 inches and larger were required to have these built-in features. Though I’ve never used my own, V-chips are made to read encoded information about a given show’s rating and respond to that information by blocking shows that are deemed inappropriate.
You may have noticed these ratings popping up at the beginning of each show you watch. That’s the little jumble of white letters up in a corner. I’ve actually missed the first scenes of several “Law & Order” varieties by trying to figure out what “D” stands for (turns out it’s for “suggestive dialogue”).
But even with all of these innovations in blocking potentially offensive material from the naked eyes of the nation’s children, there are still the inevitable moments like this year’s Super Bowl half-time show. A flash of Janet Jackson’s decoratively covered nipple set off a firestorm of decency discussions. Poor, innocent Justin Timberlake was forced into a heartfelt apology to the people of America for the offending “wardrobe malfunction.” The Federal Communications Commission flew to America’s rescue, voting to increase fines for decency standard violations.
In the midst of all of this, I started wondering why the airwaves are so flooded with smut and indecency, as the FCC suggests. But that’s the thing – they aren’t.
TV and radio are no different today than they were this time last year, and it’s my guess that the only thing different next year will be the absence of “Friends” and “Frasier.”
I grew up in an era before V-chips, before FCC ratings after every commercial break, and when Madonna’s books most certainly were not for children. Has the result of this been that I live a life of endless debauchery, unable to tell right from wrong because of the horrible messages that might have been hidden in episodes of “Punky Brewster”? No, even if I did grow up watching “Three’s Company.” It means that I was exposed to the elements of society, good and bad, that TV showed me, and which my mom allowed me to watch. She was a living V-chip, in a way.
The FCC’s decency rampage of the last few months – in which Janet Jackson and Howard Stern have become human embodiments of indecency – is a well-timed maneuver. The FCC just happens to be headed up by Michael K. Powell (yes, he is Secretary of State Colin Powell’s son), a Republican, who was added to the commission in 1998 by then-President Clinton and named FCC chairman on George W. Bush’s second full day in office.
In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart issued a concurring decision in the Jacobellis v. Ohio obscenity case in which his definition of “hard-core” pornography was left at “I know it when I see it ...” That vagueness, originally part of a decision that the movie in question was not obscene, is often used by conservatives to avoid defining their hot-button word of “indecent.”
By making the charge fluid, it can be leveled at anything. It has been the basis of numerous censorship trials, banned book lists, and on-air personalities being pulled off the air, and has put legions of TV censors to work. While guidelines for television and radio may be helpful in protecting what innocence there is in this world, applying undefined blanket censorship in the hopes of achieving undefined blanket decency is a foolhardy idea.
In the last 60 years, as television has gone from an anomaly to a household staple, the accepted rules for decency have come a long way. In 1952, writers for “I Love Lucy” were forced to be extremely creative to avoid using the word “pregnant,” then considered indecent. Would the world have fallen apart if that eight-letter word had slipped in? Probably not.
For centuries, artists have fought censorship. Some extended the boundaries of what was considered decent, others fought to reflect societal realities. So while conservatives are rallying around time delays for live shows and taking shows off the air in the months leading up to the election, it is our responsibility to remember that we all turned out just fine without V-chips and Michael Powell’s watchful eye.
Veronica Maday is a student at New York University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.