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Indecency Discussion

Last week, 350 members of the National Association of Broadcasters met in Washington to talk about establishing an industry code of conduct. They're trying to head off having some sort of anti-smut guidelines imposed on them by the Federal Communications Commission, and they're scared to death of proposed legislation that would raise the maximum fine for indecency--whatever that is, exactly--from $27,500 to $500,000.

Here in Tucson, local broadcasters participated in a panel discussion of media morals at a Tucson Advertising Federation luncheon. They didn't reach many conclusions, but most of them were obviously nervous about standing in the line of fire between an offended community and the networks, which were blamed for most of the indecency on the air. (None of the locals were inclined to talk about, let alone take responsibility for, the antics of disc jockeys. That, rather than network feeds, is what can get a hometown station in trouble with the FCC.)

Most of the discussion of indecency has centered on Janet Jackson's tit-flash, Bono's adjectival use of the word "fuck" and maybe American Idol judge Simon Cowell's habit of scratching his eye with his middle finger. But ad man Jeff Nordensson of The Nordensson Group led off the discussion by showing the beer commercials that aired during the Super Bowl. A dog chomping a guy's crotch, a farting horse, a male bikini-wax victim, a harridan wife--these are things that some people would find offensive, yet they are images that entertain that all-powerful 18- to 24-year-old male demographic: the guys who buy the most beer.

An ad "can be entertaining, funny, full of drama--you can sell a product very well without resorting to bad taste," said Nordensson. "But 18-year-old males think scatological humor is hilarious, and that's who Bud Light is going after."

Said University of Arizona media arts professor Kevin Sandler, "To my students, there's no problem. They're the people all this material is being aimed at. For them, this indecency issue is no big deal. And for them, there's no distinction between advertising and broadcast programs and basic cable and pay cable."

Broadcasters, who use the public airwaves, are held to decency standards that don't affect cable providers, and broadcast TV networks have been trying to compete with edgy cable programming by offering more skin and naughty talk. But they just can't get away with everything you see on HBO and MTV.

"I think the media in general has gone too far," declared KOLD general manager Jim Arnold. Referring to his fellow station managers, Arnold said, "We have the ultimate power to stop a program from airing if we have good reason, but a lot of us hesitate to use it." And in any case, he suggested, broadcasters shouldn't panic every time the audience starts to fume. "I get more complaints about running Billy Graham than about Victoria's Secret," he said.

Said Steve Groesbeck, general manager of Arizona Lotus, "The key is defining what's moral and what isn't. The problem we're going to have with the FCC is that there's no clear-cut definition of what's obscene," obscenity being determined by the standards of each community. "We treat the whole audience as one homogenous group," but it's actually a mass of subgroups, each with different standards.

That's why Arnold predicted that this election-year flurry of fussing over indecency will ultimately result in ... nothing.

"It's too difficult to come up with a definition of indecency that can be Constitutionally upheld," he said. Grosbeck, in contrast, said he expected a few heavy, symbolic fines to be imposed before the issue dies down.

Doug Martin, president and GM of Good News Communications, had little patience for arguments about moral relativism. "Our culture seems to be sinking lower and lower," he said. "Now we're seeing our kids get sexually explicit material and violence thrown at them at such an early age. Those who are in control need to take responsibility for this."

But local stations and cable providers aren't in control in every circumstance, said cable guy Bill Ferrell, general manager of Cox Media. With more than a hint of cynicism, he said, "It's interesting that the government wants to get its fingers in decency standards, but during a political campaign, whatever they send us, we can't touch"--meaning that broadcasters are required to carry campaign commercials even if they question their content. "If John Kerry--and I hope to god he doesn't--if he wants to appear nude, we have to carry it."

If audiences don't like what they see and hear, most panelists agreed, they should complain to networks and program producers, the originators of most of the so-called indecency on the air. But Martin urged his colleagues to take greater responsibility for what they deliver to the public.

"It's up to us as a society to set standards, so we can have a civil society," he said, pointing out that entertainment in history included making pornographic petroglyphs and having people killed in the Roman Coliseum. "It was popular then, but did that make it right?"

A libertarian friend of mine once said, "I believe in censorship. I use the 'off' button all the time." Ferrell would sympathize with that tactic. "I don't think there's a better way for people to express their distaste than by not tuning in," he said, "because if people don't watch a program, it gets canceled."

Some couch potatoes would greet such a suggestion with incomprehension.

"Once, I told somebody who complained about a program to go read a book," said Arnold. "They couldn't believe I said that."

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