American TV is obsessed with extreme makeover shows so it came as no surprise this week when Les Moonves, the head of CBS television and one of the industry's most powerful executives, attempted an extreme makeover on himself. "We will vigorously defend our right to produce such content as some may deem too controversial," Moonves told an audience of television critics in Los Angeles.
"We believe the viewing and listening public will not tolerate government censorship and we're going to take a very strong stand on that," he said.
In their rush to praise the CBS boss, most of the critics forgot that Moonves's words were utterly at odds with his actions late last year. Under pressure from right-wing media pundits and Republican politicians, he pulled a controversial drama about former US president Ronald Reagan and banished it to cable TV, where few people saw it. "I don't think it was balanced," he said at the time.
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"Ludicrous," retorted the film's director, Robert Ackerman.
"An attack on free speech," chimed Judy Davis, the actress who played Nancy Reagan and who characterized Moonves's attitude thus: "We don't like what we suspect you might be saying so we will do everything in our power to remove it from a major network so people can't hear what you're saying."
The judges for the Emmys, US TV's most prestigious awards, clearly found little fault with The Reagans, nominating it for seven awards last week.
CBS found itself in the middle of an even greater controversy a couple of months later, when it broadcast the infamous Janet Jackson "breast-baring" incident during the Super Bowl half-time show -- the first wardrobe malfunction in history to spark a congressional debate. The network responded by claiming ignorance of Jackson's intentions. She was later dropped from an appearance at the Grammy Awards after she refused to apologize on air.
But while Moonves has attempted to align himself with both sides of the censorship debate, there are few others within the US media and political classes who share his ambivalence. If it is true to say in the run-up to this year's presidential election that the US has never been more politically divided, then it is equally true that the battle for control of the country's cultural landscape has never been more bitterly fought. Some commentators, such as Robert Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, say that the latter is a direct result of the former. "It is very difficult and complicated to conduct arguments in public over the different political approaches to shaping the lives of Americans," he says.
"It's far easier to get worked up about sex and swearing on TV. It's a much easier battleground in that the public, because it watches so much TV, can relate to what is being argued over," he says.
On one side of the debate are those railing against what they imagine to be the debasement of traditional American values -- Christian leaders like Charles Colson, who has argued that the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were the result of the US guards being fed "a steady diet of MTV and pornography" -- and self- appointed moral guardians like the Parent Television Council (slogan: "Because our children are watching"), whose Web site rates programs on their adherence to so-called family values and which provides a helpful link to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Web site encouraging people to file complaints about TV shows. An estimated 500,000 people did so after the Super Bowl -- an event described by council founder Brent Bozell as the "ground zero of the commercially calculated outrageousness."
The FCC, a hitherto obscure outfit whose main preoccupation had been to facilitate the consolidation of the US media into the hands of a few conglomerates, was shocked into action. "What has this country come to?" asked the commission's chairman, Michael Powell, when a more pertinent question might have been: "Where has the FCC been for the last 15 years, when sex and violence have emerged as the common currency of America television?"
The question has remained unanswered these last six months while the FCC set about restoring its standing in conservative circles. It pushed for tougher guidelines on what should be shown and said on network television, and dished out stiff punishments to those judged to have broken the existing rules -- an illustrious list which includes Bono (first exonerated then condemned for swearing during a live broadcast); shock jock Howard Stern (radio stations have been fined a total of US$1.5 million for obscenities broadcast during his syndicated show); and CBS (facing a US$550,000 fine for the Super Bowl affair).
At the head of the coalition of the morally indignant stands US President George W Bush himself, who during a recent trip to the Vatican told the Pope what he wanted for the US was "to remake the culture." But while the president insists he simply wants to protect the American way of life, there are those who believe he is intent on destroying it. Among them are Stern, Elton John -- who this week attacked a "new McCarthy-like era of censorship in America" -- and the phalanx of US film and TV producers who recently lined up to tell The New York Times that they had never known a more conservative working environment.
For many within the network TV industry, the Super Bowl was an epochal event, the moment the liberal ascendancy in the American cultural mainstream was usurped. Since then, the instances of petty limitations imposed on program makers by the networks have almost become too frequent to keep track of. Famously, ER was forced to cut a shot of an accident victim's naked breast; The O.C. was instructed not to show a female character having an orgasm (though a male character's orgasm was allowed); an episode of That 70s Show featuring a scene in which a male character is caught masturbating (off-camera) was broadcast with a parental warning; and so, endlessly, on.
Inevitably, a mood of self-censorship has enveloped the creative class. "I'm not doing anything particularly different this year than I've done in the past. But I'm not going to do something I know is going to be really provocative either," Steven Bochco, the writer-producer of NYPD Blue, told The New York Times.
"If I do, they'll blur it. They'll cut it. They'll perform artless surgery," Bochco said.
However much Bochco and his colleagues complain about their lot, the fact is their predecessors, in the 1960s and early 1970s, had to work in a far more oppressive atmosphere, according to Robert Thompson. "Up until 1971 the rule in American TV was that husband and wife slept in separate beds. Forget extramarital sexuality, there was no marital sexuality. The word `pregnant' was never uttered, there were no swear words. That changed with the sitcom All in the Family,' Thompson says.
"In that program viewers heard a toilet being flushed for the first time ever -- the first time TV acknowledged we had bodily functions. I call it `the flush heard round the world,'" Thompson says.
The drift towards more realistic TV turned into a flood by the late 1980s and 1990s, when the networks, seeking to attract a wealthier demographic, started commissioning upscale adult dramas, like Moonlighting, St Elsewhere and Twin Peaks.
The expansion of cable TV -- which was not bound by the same rules on content as the networks -- hastened the push towards more adult-oriented shows as the networks, scared of losing their audience, ratcheted up the sex and violence. "If you want freedom of expression then I'm afraid you have to accept the toxic waste. For every great show like The Sopranos there will be some crummy stuff,' Thompson says.
"The bottom line is that it's the marketplace that has brought us to this point. The whole tradition of content regulation in the US is based on the idea that the marketplace should have its own way," Thompson says.
Ironically, the push for more controls on what is shown is coming largely from right-wing, religious politicians and organizations who have long argued that market forces should prevail in every aspect of society: education, healthcare, social services -- everything except broadcasting, it seems.
But irony and self-doubt have never been part of the Christian Conservative lexicon, especially now that they are in a position of influence. The groups who want tougher restrictions on broadcasters are more organized now -- thanks in large part to the Internet -- and have the support of the White House, argues Mark Crispin Miller, professor of culture and communication at New York University. "We have always had angry people in this country who loathe mass culture and who are vigilant against any works of art they deem to be anti-Christian," he says. "Unfortunately, we now have an openly theocratic government which is encouraging these people and providing a political climate that is allowing them to thrive," he says.
Miller cites a number of government decisions as examples of this new orthodoxy, from the withdrawal of funding for organizations that promote birth control in the Third World, to the withdrawal of public money used to finance captioning of the 1960s TV comedy Bewitched for the hard of hearing ("Because it's about witchcraft," he says).
In a month when the singer Linda Ronstadt was thrown out of a Las Vegas hotel for expressing support for the filmmaker Michael Moore, it's hard to argue against the notion that the US is becoming more intolerant. Yet organizations like the Parent Television Council argue -- as did the hotel manager who banished Ronstadt -- that they are simply speaking for the "silent majority."
Not so, says Robert Thompson. "Most Americans were not appalled by what they saw during the Super Bowl, and the only children who were put in any danger by Janet Jackson were those whose parents may have been fired because of what happened. What we have here is a really vocal group of people with a disproportionately loud voice, claiming to speak for the average American. The suggestion that most Americans are appalled by what they see on television is not borne out by the data -- the number of Americans who watch TV is enormous," he says.
Mark Crispin Miller agrees. "The reality is that people are increasingly fed up and disenchanted with Bush's government and the puritanical pushiness of its cohorts. Ultimately, it is not the American way," Miller says.
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