“Are you sure this is a story?” someone at NBC asked last week as we prepared to break the news that the Parents Television Council was sending letters to NBC’s affiliates to ask them not to air The Playboy Club, NBC’s dark, Mad Men-inspired new drama set against the rabbit-eared backdrop of Chicago’s Playboy Club in the 1960s.
We have heard this question before from other network executives about other PTC complaints and the answer remains, sadly, “Yes.”
“Sadly” because PTC has powers given to it by government, not journalists, and a power above and beyond the merits of its complaints. PTC complaints are newsworthy because they have gotten results in the past. And they have gotten results primarily because of the FCC’s now-challenged content regulation regime that converted complaints into fines and chilling decisions.
As a result, with content critics carrying a government-used club they have wielded with success, broadcasters need to be forewarned when it is being brandished.
Broadcasters are not blameless for this development; they too often ask “how high?” when the FCC says jump, or they accept content regs as the public-interest price of free spectrum. That doesn’t mean that the public interest is not part of the deal, just that the public’s interest is not wellserved by content regulation. Never has been, never will be.
We don’t agree with PTC’s views of the dangers of some skin or adult themes after 10 p.m., especially when kids have access to far more graphic and edgy content on pay TV and the Web and probably their friend’s locker at school.
Without the threat of government overseers making too much of such complaints, as they clearly did in the case of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl reveal, the interplay with PTC and broadcasters would be what the marketplace is all about. If PTC represents the million-plus people they claim to, broadcasters would take that into account, balance it against how many people disagreed, add in their own views as editors and programmers, respond accordingly, live with the ratings result and either stick with the plan or change course.
PTC’s power to influence programming should be only that of viewers weighing in on something they don’t like. We know what our response as a broadcaster would be if we had already vetted the show and made the decision that it was something we wanted to air and thought many of our viewers wanted to see: Change the channel. That advice should be one more factor in the interplay of broadcaster and viewer. But again, it isn’t.
The constant threat of the government putting the magnifying glass on such comments changes the perspective dramatically. As we wait to find out whether and how Congress is going to keep the country from deadbeat status in the borrowing department, it makes us wish Congress had spent a little more time preventing debt pileups on the Beltway and less time boosting indecency fines, holding hearings and generally acting holier than broadcasters, particularly given the almost monthly revelations about congressional misbehavior that itself needs to be blurred or bleeped or left on the cutting-room floor.
That is why the Supreme Court needs to usher the FCC out of the content-regulation business. Now.
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