When The Envelope Pushes Back

Broadcasters have always pushed the envelope. We’ve pushed the technology envelope and the content envelope. But now it looks like the content envelope is pushing back.
What...you really thought that indecency on the airwaves wouldn’t become an issue for Congress? While most of the attention in the past few years has been paid to radio—thanks to Howard Stern, Bubba the Love Sponge, and Opie and Anthony—Bono and Janet Jackson shifted that attention to television.
The main problem is the fundamental difference between these two management questions:
1) Can we get away with this?
2) What can we get away with?
Of course, the industry is now pushing hard for voluntary NAB Code of Conduct-like action. Why now? Because government regulation is right around the corner.
Why have broadcasters waited until now to realize that they had a problem with indecency? Did a light suddenly come on in the collective head of the broadcast industry when legislators got pissed? Did broadcasters suddenly realize they were doing something wrong? Just because the government said it was wrong now doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong before the government noticed.
Recently, I heard a Clear Channel jock complain that he had to tone down his show because of “new” corporate restrictions.
Restrictions my ass. It seems that while a $27,500 fine was palatable and a merely considered a “business risk,” $275,000 or more is not. This has nothing to do with what broadcasters think is right or wrong, or with restricting content. It’s about fear over a potential astronomical fine.
It’s simple. For the most part, broadcasters who were pushing the content envelope did not bother to take responsibility for the wrath their actions incurred. They got away with pushing the envelope...until the envelope pushed back.
Given the chance, the television networks would love to air content that could compete on an even playing field with HBO and Showtime. But they can’t, because they use the public airwaves. With 100% cable/satellite penetration, I’m sure that the broadcast networks would be more than happy to turn in their O&O broadcast licenses and compete with the cable networks.
And for the record, the Janet Jackson incident was not obscene. In bad taste? Sure. Indecent? OK. But not obscene.
So what exactly is obscene? There’s a three-part test in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling from “Miller vs. California” that helps answer that question:
First, an average person applying contemporary community standards would have to find the work as a whole appealing to prurient interest. Next, the material must offensively depict or describe “sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law.” Finally, the work as a whole can’t have “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
When it comes to Janet Jackson, not all might agree her “work” has serious artistic value. But that’s your opinion. It doesn’t make it obscene.
Michael Silbergleid is the editor. He can be reached at msilbergleid@cmpinformation.com.