Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Indecent Exposure, or How to Mention both Adam Lambert and the Supreme Court in the Same Breath

Some things never change. Way back in 1956 – the days of television's childhood – Elvis Presley's hip gyrations had a way of stirring up controversy. Ed Sullivan, a famous broadcaster, vowed to never allow such a vulgar act on his show. Once the ratings for Presley's appearance on rival, Steve Allen's show came in, however, he suddenly had a change of heart. Presley's performance on The Ed Sullivan Show has since become one of pop music's greatest triumphs over the supposed squeamishness of the American television viewing public.

Here, in 2009, another bizarre parallel with the middle of last century has emerged: the resurgence of the Red Tide. With the Great Healthcare Debate raging, cable news has overflowed with activists passionately expressing their fears that this country has fallen into the hands of communists. It is funny, then, that most of the politicians who stand firmly against government-run health care strongly advocate another trademark of communist government: censorship. When the country was suddenly, and violently, forced to witness the disturbing reality of human anatomy during 2004's Super Bowl Halftime Show, more political demand for censorship of broadcast television and radio emerged than ever before.

A number of CBS stations were fined for the incident – not because they had creative input in the performance, not because they hired the producers who did have such input and not even because they were part of the network that hired those producers. These individual stations were fined because they, ultimately, were the messengers; with very little awareness of what CBS was providing to them (and certainly no idea what liberties Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson would take), they merely handled the last leg, bringing the show to the screens of Americans. Suddenly, television stations were like turkeys on Thanksgiving – ready to fall victim to spurious government fines at any time.

The folks at the Fox network were clearly feeling the heat from their station managers when they decided to take the government to court over an incident of their own. (Cher decided to say "fuck" while accepting an award at the Billboard Music Awards.) The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where earlier this year, the fines were ruled legitimate on the grounds that "even isolated utterances can be made in… a vulgar and shocking manner, and can constitute harmful first blows to children." In other words, the government can censor television and radio broadcasts because of the children.

Apparently, some things do change... such as the validity of the First Amendment.

What is the result? Broadcast TV has become a grotesque patchwork of arbitrary taboos and shocking lapses in standards. The government has never prosecuted a network for showing violent fare; the old adage that you can show a man severing a woman's breast before you can actually show a breast has only become more accurate. Any number of weekly crime dramas revel in the graphic details of heinous crimes, but only one has faced a fine: Without a Trace featured a (contrived) orgy scene, without a trace of nudity or violence, that led to fines. Ironically, the government's clear admonition of any and all nudity has come alongside a notable increase in network television sex scenes.

So, while it is true that television networks rarely balk at catering to the lowest common denominator, they remain victims of the government's arbitrary regulations. The Federal Communications Commission only has one written guideline for networks to follow: Do not show anything "indecent" between 6AM and 10PM and never show anything "obscene." No further detail is provided and only the latter part has any basis in the Constitution.

Out of this maelstrom emerges the latest chapter in the saga: Adam Lambert at last weekend's American Music Awards. Lambert's performance featured an overt, S&M theme. During the course of the song, he was surrounded by scantily clad men and women, wrapping their limbs around him. Early on, one of them – a man – crawled up to him and simulated oral sex. A minute or two later, Lambert stuck his fingers into a female dancer's crotch. At the end of the number, Lambert kissed a male member of his band. ABC, the show's broadcaster, was quick to claim that Lambert's rehearsals suggested that a slightly less risqué performance would take place. ABC also, promptly, cancelled Lambert's scheduled appearance the next morning on Good Morning, America, for fear of him doing something else unexpected.

The media has largely focused on Lambert's allegations of double standards. He claims that female performers often do such suggestive performances, including same-sex kissing, without any complaints. (His point was effectively proven when a CBS News report on the incident blurred his kiss, but showed Madonna and Britney Spears kissing uncensored.) Yet, it is unlikely that ABC reacted the way it did due to any double standard, especially given that it is considered friendly to the gay community by activist groups. Instead, it is obvious that ABC fears fines in a territory that, time and again, government regulators love to tread: live music performances.

Still, ABC is hardly an unwitting victim. The theme of the number, including the costumes and most of the choreography, was clearly approved by the network. They knew exactly what they were getting into; they were simply trying to walk the line and they tripped. Similarly, most of the blame fell on Janet Jackson back in 2004 when, in reality, the network approved a song that included lyrics such as, "I gotta have you naked by the end of this song." Can CBS really blame Justin Timberlake for delivering on a promise that they knew he would make?

Network TV is not a cesspool because of a "fuck" here and a boob there. (It is not really a cesspool at all; that is cable's honor.) What plagues broadcast television is the pursuit of profit – the constant catering to the masses at the expense of social responsibility and artistic ambition. No amount of regulation will ever fix that problem; it runs far too deeply. This fact applies to the government, as well. If politicians genuinely wanted to crusade against "indecency," they would tackle television's obvious scourge: rampant, graphic, cynical displays of violence. They would also probably do so without compromising constitutional rights. There are no powerful political contingencies, however, pushing for such things, so politicians have no motivation to pursue them.

Ultimately, the best we can ask for is letting free speech be truly free, letting parents do the parenting and reminding those who dislike network TV that they can always (gasp!) turn off the fucking TV.

There is one glimmer of hope that suggests things are heading this way. Fox's case was limited to judging whether or not the Billboard Music Awards incident violated the FCC's guidelines. A number of Supreme Court justices made it clear that their decisions stood within this narrow scope and that, if allowed to consider the larger issue of those guidelines' legality, the justices would likely declare them unconstitutional. Here is hoping that the First Amendment turns out to be one of those things that never changes.

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