Yesterday President Bush signed legislation which gives the FCC a ten-fold increase in individual fines jumping from $32,500 to $325,000 for programming that “exceeds the bounds of decency.” The FCC defines indecency as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.” Indecency, to the FCC, is whatever the five individuals who review the cases determine is offensive to the community. Does that include being gay? Yes it does. In communications to radio and TV stations the FCC has outlined what it considers “indecent” between the hours of 6:00 am and 10:00 pm which includes: “References to oral or non-heterosexual sex are typically found to be "patently offensive." & “non-clinical references to gay or lesbian sex.”
The problem is: who is determining what is “indecent” and why does that matter. In 2000 the FCC received 350 complaints which resulted in fines of $48,000. In 2004 the FCC received 1.3 million complaints resulting in fines of $3.6 million. Excluding the Janet Jackson episode 99.9% of the 2004 complaints were made by one organization: The Parents Television Council. The PTC is a religious oriented organization promoting “family values” which is clearly stated in their annual Best/Worst lists in which Joan of Arcadia and 7th Heaven are the best shows (and everything tens of millions of people like are the worst). The PTC ignores the tools already in place for adults to choose what their children/teens/selves may want to watch from show ratings to the show blocking V-chip. The PTC feel the best plan to protect children is to eliminate certain types of programs, and more specifically promote a Christian oriented world message: that teens shouldn’t have sex, and neither should anyone else.
As you scratch your head in puzzlement, (teens not having sex?), take a look again at the reasons why the family show Everwood gets the number 1 worst TV show spot for 2003-2004. It is because a) The father who is a Doctor in the show gives birth control pills to a teen who asks for them and b) A character gets an abortion : “Everwood's reckless messages about sex without consequences are expressly targeted to impressionable teens.” This denial of teen sexuality is THE main concern of the conservative Christian groups that send their complaints through the PTC. And the FCC agrees. In a 2003 letter from the FCC commissioner to the PTC, Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, Culture and Family Institute & Family Research Council the commissioner Kevin Martin outlined a plan which, with the cooperation of the Christian right, would stop broadcasters even creating certain themed material: “Classifying each indecent utterance as a separate violation could result in significantly higher fines for many complaints. Congressional action raising the statutory limit of each indecency fine also would help. Together, these steps could create a sufficient disincentive to violating our indecency regulations that broadcasters would vigilantly monitor their programming and emphasize to their on-air talent that indecent material is not to be tolerated.” Yesterday, all the aims of that plan had been achieved.
Three months ago the FCC gave a fine to the show Without a Trace for showing a teenage girl in bra and panties in a flashback scene about a rape during a teen sex party. The fine for the single episode was $3.6 million, bigger than the collective FCC fines from 1990-2003. The FCC stated reason for the fine: it showed "teenage boys and girls participating in a sexual orgy." The FCC fined every CBS station the maximum in order to obtain the fine. Under the new law, enacted yesterday, a similar fine for a single TV episode could be over $35 million.
Many large media corporations have already signed private agreements with the FCC in order to reduce or minimize potential fines. Many of these agreements give the FCC the right to arbitrate to programmers what is and is not allowed, along with provisions that if the FCC determines something to be indecent, that employees involved would be suspended or terminated.
Since the PTC claimed victory for Will and Grace going off the air, with the current fines and hovering threats it is clear that we won’t be seeing LGBT people in positive, openly sexual roles in US non-cable programming anytime soon, as has already been seen with all major networks refusing to show ads of gay couples welcomed at UCC churches. It is interesting to note that while two guys kissing generates FCC complaints, the annual episodes of lesbian or bisexual crazy killers do not. It seems that misrepresenting LGBT people as mentally deranged criminals is not offensive to the public while them leading normal sexual lives is.
But this is not to say that the FCC ruling will not, with their obsession on teen abstinence, have a direct impact on my life. Besides the repeated studies showing the dangers of abstinence only programs (“Abstinence-only programs provide these youth with no information, other than abstinence, regarding how to protect themselves from pregnancy, HIV, and other STIs.”), and that the results are the same or worse than classic sexual education programs, the Christians march on in their odd belief that total and complete ignorance will prevent teens from having sex. Personally, I went to the most conservative religious high school ever which not only required abstinence but had adult constant monitoring of students. Students were still having sex (in fact at graduation over 10% of the girls were secretly pregnant). The US has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western World which includes 34% of women getting pregnant before 20. In an 8 year study 61% of those who pledged and still intended to maintain abstinence to “True Love Waits” had sex before marriage. Yet the solution for the PTC (and FCC) is to educate by NOT show teens having sex (and LGBT teens having sexual lives at all) and to try and force out shows that show birth control and abortion?
Last week Linda’s brother told us the new “rules” he had decided concerning access to our nieces and nephews. We are allowed to visit them now as they are babies but once they reach a “certain age” (age 4? Age 5?), we can no longer visit them together; gifts must come only from Aunt Linda (as there will be no Aunt Beth) and a parent will accompany Linda at all times when she is with the children. I will only be referred to as “her friend” or at most “roommate.” These rules are to “protect” the children from having to know about what a lesbian is. And yes, he is a Christian. Painful, particularly as we moved continents to be more active in the lives of our nieces and nephews. But I already don’t see my blood related nephew, primarily because, as his evangelical mother states, “I don’t want him to grow up in a world where he knows what “lesbian” means.” Is it hard to be treated like sexual criminals by family members with children? Yes.
The Christian right, joined by the FCC is trying to make my sister-in-law’s dream come true. How opposing something that can be educated with one sentence (“some people are attracted to people of the opposite sex like mommy and daddy, and some of the same sex like Aunt Linda and Aunt Beth”) is now part of a public policy of broadcast “indecency” is beyond depressing. Worse, is this Christian need to try and create a cultural world where, instead of teens learning how to make choices and become adults, their choices are smothered through ignorance. I want better media representation than that for me, for Linda and for my nieces and nephews.
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