Last week the Federal Communications Commission harrumphed briefly to life, handing down one of its outrageous and seemingly arbitrary fines to a broadcast network that dared show a bit of live flesh. It was a classic move for George Bush’s FCC, which over the last seven years has idled in laissez-faire mode through one takeover and consolidation after another, only to suddenly spew forth torrents of manufactured outrage whenever some Christian-right group needs to be appeased on a matter of “indecency.”
Slipping into way-back mode this time, the FCC last Friday fined ABC and its affiliates $1.43 million for airing a 2003 episode of NYPD Blue that featured a young boy walking in on one of the precinct’s female detectives (played by Charlotte Ross) as she’s getting in the shower. Here’s the offending scene:
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(Before I go on: Was NYPD Blue still on the air in 2003? I stopped watching when Victor Sifuentes left — wait, I mean Matt Santos. Is it still on now? Has Screech from Saved by the Bell been replaced by Zac Efron, or maybe one of the Jonas Brothers?)
Here at Political Culture, no good censorship moment passes without contextualization, so here goes: This scene depicts Ross’s character readying for a (presumably post-coital, or at least morning-after) shower in the apartment of a new boyfriend and suffering the embarrassment of encountering his son in the bathroom. The scene is a not-so-classy re-enactment of the JoBeth Williams-Justin Henry hallway encounter in Kramer vs. Kramer — laced with a brief, bizarre, between-the-legs homage to The Graduate. Both those films must appear on daytime TV somewhere in the country (or on cable, but more about that later) at least once a week.
How, exactly, the FCC came up with a number like $1.43 million for this bit of unoriginal cheesecake is just part of the idiocy — not to mention the hypocrisy — that comes standard with a ruling from the commission. The maximum allowable fine to a broadcast network for “indecency” (warning: you’ll never see me use that word without quotation marks) was actually $27,500 at the time — but here’s the genius: The commission multiplied that amount by 52, which is the number of ABC affiliates in the Central and Mountain time zones that aired the episode.
Central and Mountain, you ask? Mais oui. In the Eastern and Pacific zones, NYPD Blue aired at 10 p.m. — safely inside the 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. “safe harbor” period for airing “indecent” content. But in the middle of the country the show aired at 9 p.m. — a time when, presumably, children’s virgin eyes might still be awake enough to pop out of their heads (kinda like the kid in the show) at the sight of a woman’s shapely buttocks.
Such a brilliant scheme! Arbitrarily punitive, yet somehow defensible! Never mind that the FCC had never before conjured such a time zone-specific scheme during its 50-something-year reign over broadcast television. Never mind that the offending episode of NYPD Blue, like all the others, sported a TV-MA rating in a system that was developed with the FCC’s cooperation. Never mind that every television set produced for purchase in the United States comes with a little gizmo called a V-Chip that enables parents to shield their children from programs that they believe might place the occasional booty call.
And never mind that NYPD Blue had been on the air for 10 frickin’ seasons by the time Charlotte Ross turned her bare ass to the camera, and that during those 10 seasons we’d seen not only Kim Delaney and Victor Sifuentes and Gail O’Grady (my personal fave) in the buff, but Dennis Franz as well — on numerous occasions! Now that’s offensive! My point is, by 2003, any grown-up who could still get all worked up by a derriere on NYPD Blue had to have been either culturally illiterate, or just an assclown.
Or, perhaps, a Christian-right nutjob spoiling for a fight — or a couple thousand of them. The FCC’s standard M.O. is to dwell in blissful ignorance of the world around it, unless and until some gang of organized crackpots like Focus on the Family or the Parents Television Council organizes a postcard-writing campaign (or, these days, a web petition). Apparently a minor avalanche of identical e-mails is more than our poor, befuddled commissioners can be expected to bear before they rise up to take another potshot at the First Amendment.
(By the way, if you have some spare time and some pent-up outrage over my repeated exploitation of expletives, euphemisms and nudity in this column — or if you’re just fed up with the obvious homosexual panic that’s bouncing around the mind of Mike Huckabee — you might want to go here and send your own complaint to the FCC. It’s a form letter, but it’s still cathartic.)
It’s intriguing that it took the commission five long years to dream up its little game of 52-(affiliate)-pick-up. Of course, it’s been an eventful five years for the “indecency” police, what with all the cursing at awards shows (Bono, Cher, Nicole Richie); Clear Channel’s repeated run-ins with the commission over Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge’s radio shows; and the race to jack up fines for violations of the FCC’s labyrinthine policies. (The Republican Congress, taking a break from texting pages and soliciting cops in bathrooms, in 2005 pushed through a bill increasing the top fine more than tenfold, to $325,000.)
Of course, there was also that minor incident at the Super Bowl in 2004. Go ahead, take another look. You know you want to:
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The uproar over Janet’s “wardrobe malfunction” is perhaps the defining moment of the Bush-era FCC. It imposed a $550,000 fine on CBS and its 20 owned-and-operated affiliates; CBS has paid $3.5 million to settle private “indecency” complaints, but has initiated a legal challenge to the FCC fine that’s working its way through federal court. Whether CBS should be held liable for such an unscripted event is certainly a legitimate issue — as was the question of whether NBC or Fox should be punished for celebrities’ use of naughty words during the Golden Globes and Billboard Awards.
Last summer a federal court overturned the Bush FCC’s new regulations concerning “fleeting expletives,” saying the rules were “divorced from reality” and that it was “doubtful” that any such rules could “adequately respond to the constitutional and statutory challenges raised by the [TV] networks.” Hilariously, the court added, “In recent times even the top leaders of our government have used variants of these expletives in a manner that no reasonable person would believe referenced sexual or excretory organs or activities.”
In other words, if George Bush can feel free to discuss with Tony Blair, over an open mic, the need to “get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit”; and if Dick Cheney can tell Pat Leahy on the Senate floor to “go fuck yourself”; then Bush’s FCC shouldn’t get its knickers in a twist when Nicole Richie launches into an anecdote at the Billboard Awards about how “it’s not so fuckin’ simple” to “get cow shit out of a purse.” Whatever that means.
You’ve surely noticed that I keep using the phrase “Bush’s FCC”; I don’t use it merely because I’m a proud carrier of Bush Derangement Syndrome. Bill Clinton wasn’t exactly a civil libertarian on “indecency” issues — he signed the Communications Decency Act (1996) and the Child Online Protection Act (1998), both of which were struck down by federal courts as unconstitutional. Still, Bush has overseen a much more punitive FCC than his predecessor.
The FCC comprises five commissioners, currently three Republicans and two Democrats, and a staff dominated by White House cronies. The president also gets to choose the commission’s chairman. Bush’s first was Michael Powell (that sudden whiff of nepotism might have to do with the fact that he’s Colin’s son); his second is Kevin J. Martin, a typically tight-assed Bushie (just look at him, at left) who is currently under Congressional investigation for excessive secrecy and abuse of power in the course of helping Bush relax media cross-ownership rules. Martin’s advisor on “indecency” issues is Penny Nance, a former board member of Concerned Women for America — that’s right, Phyllis Schlafly’s gaggle of right-wing be-yotches who leave no hair-helmet behind in their mission “to bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy.”
But back to Charlotte Ross’s backside. I have no doubt that the presence of a child is the key reason the FCC decided to pounce on this particular sequence, having allowed beaucoups of NYPD blue-ness to slide over the previous decade. I am forced to admit that I find the scene a bit discomfiting — particularly the through-the-legs, Mrs. Robinson bit. What’s more, even in the context of the series’ 12-season history, I find it to be more gratuitous than usual.
When you replay the clip (as if you haven’t already, several times), check out the 27-second mark: The camera briefly pans down from the shower head to Ms. Ross’s gluteus maximus for one more lascivious glance — for no good reason whatsoever. Frankly, I’m amazed that shot got past ABC Standards & Practices. If anything, the scene seems to invite the viewer to revel in objectifying Ms. Ross, as if to say, “Did you get a good look? Now, what do you think about this boy getting a look, you perv?”
Obviously, the PTC and Kevin Martin didn’t think much of it — even if they didn’t get around to doing something about it until five years later. Perhaps this fine is a closing salvo from an FCC that recognizes it may no longer be in the Christian Right’s pocket come next winter. (Or maybe we can look forward to a full year of such egregious punishments.)
Nevertheless, one of these days the FCC is going to have to get around to dealing with the fact that during the 9 o’clock (Central) hour on that night in February 2003 — as Charlotte Ross was getting her kit off on ABC — any fool with cable or a satellite dish (that’s 85 percent of us, by the way) and a deft hand with the remote might have spotted any number of bare butts, cuss words and other “indecencies” on any number of basic-cable channels that are, for some reason, still outside the FCC’s jurisdiction.
One can only hope that a different president — a president who cares more about the rights of his constituents, and trusts them to make their own informed decisions about what to watch on broadcast or cable TV — will be in charge by the time Congress and the commission do decide to rectify this discrepancy. After all, 250 million of us might have cable or satellite, but not everyone can afford Cinemax.