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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Habitat for Profanity: Empirical studies and other inanity from the PTC

The first time I angrily disagreed with the Parents' Television Council came in 1977, when nine-year-old me was outraged that the group was trying to get ABC to cancel my favorite television show--Starsky & Hutch--because it was too violent. Well, what already was not one of my favorite organizations has been in the news a lot recently with its usual brand of over-stated nonsense and inanity.

First, there was the over-reaction to a suggestive GQ photo spread featuring Glee stars Lea Michelle and Dianna Agron. The PTC described the spread as "bordering on pedphilia," even though both Michelle and Agron are 24. The PTC  did not help its cause by acting as if Glee were Hannah Montana--a show intended for tweens starring an actual teen-ager, which Glee plainly is not. Plus, I am not sure how photographs can be pedophilia--did they mean child pornography (which also would have been wrong, but at least closer to accurate)?

Second comes Habitat for Profanity: Broadcast TV's Sharp Increase in Foul Language, a PTC study (with an admittedly catchy title) of the increase in profanity on network televisions from 2005 to 2010. Page 6 of the report even includes a handy chart of eighteen different dirty words or categories of dirty words (such as "euphemisms for fuck"), how often they have been heard in 2010 at 8 p.m., 9 p.m., and 10 p.m. (although 10 p.m. marks the start of the FCC's safe harbor in which profanity is permitted), and how large an increase that represents since 2005. I can only imagine the fun somone had watching every minute of tv, recording ever dirty word spoken and putting that chart together. It calls to mind what I imagine folks were doing fifty years ago, huddling around a radio trying to understand the words to "Louie, Louie" and decide whether they were obscene.

Interestingly, and seemingly erroneously, the major advocacy theme of the report is criticism of the "grossly deficient" Second Circuit ruling in Fox Television v. FCC striking down the FCC's "fleeting explitives" rule that "castrated" FCC enforcement authority. The PTC seems to link this demonstrated increase in graphic content and language on broadcasting to the decision in Fox Television, using this "evidence" to urge the FCC to pursue an appeal (a cert petition is pending and I would be surprised if SCOTUS did not take the case). Of course, Fox Television was decided in July of this year--less than four months ago. I am no empiricist, but that seems to raise something of a causation problem for the study.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 11, 2010 at 09:12 AM in Culture, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


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On the GQ photos, I think you are quoting too selectively. Right before the "borders on pedophilia" statement, the PTC accuses GQ of "sexualizing the actresses that play high-school age characters," which is perfectly accurate. The pictures show the actresses stripping in the halls of what is clearly meant to look like a high school. The Supreme Court may have decided that "virtual" child porn is protected by the First Amendment, but that doesn't mean it should not be vigorously condemned by those who believe it encourages the sexual objectification of children. Nothing in the article suggests that the PTC has called for legal action against GQ.

The use of the word "pedophilia" reads to me as if it is meant both to mean encouraging pedophilia and to avoid using words (like "child pornography") that might be understood to a have a technical legal meaning that is not intended.

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Nov 11, 2010 3:02:24 PM

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