Keep out

The last couple of weeks have been troubling for those concerned about government intrusion into content. Morality in Media called for an indecency litmus test for the new FCC nominees and for a new investigation into what it sees as the FCC's lax enforcement of rules against indecency. Then there was Sen. Sam Brownback, who was pondering a bill that would require the National Institutes of Health and Department of Education to study the effect of violent media on cognitive development and educational performance. That way, not only could TV be blamed for societal violence and obesity, the government could add lower test scores to the list. And if that weren't enough, the Surgeon General called on TV to change the way it depicts suicide, drug abuse and mental illness to help relieve the stigma on treatment.

Taking them in order, we don't think this FCC will become the national nanny. FCC Chairman Michael Powell has enough on his plate without adding an active content-policing function to his job description. Although he will do what he feels the law requires of him and his agency, he has long been an advocate for strong First Amendment protection for broadcasters. But we are feeling a bit of a chill from the prevailing political winds. The conservative Republican agenda beginning to take shape under George Jr. bears close watching. The last time the FCC cracked down on broadcast indecency, George Sr. was in the White House.

As for yet another study on TV, Sen. Brownback would do better concentrating on improving what goes on between the school bells. And we recognize that the Surgeon General wants to encourage people to seek help for their problems, but enlisting the media as a partner in thought-modification, no matter how noble the end, is the wrong means.

The government should not micromanage content, period. But broadcasters aren't making it any easier, with programming that sometimes sets the bar somewhere below the already scraped bottom of the barrel.

Hit 'em while they're down

The outcome of Vince McMahon/NBC's one-year experiment in trying to tag-team professional-wrestling sensibilities with the game of football proved to be a failure. In that, at least, the result was probably as predetermined as any WWF bout. After the first curious tune-ins, ratings plummeted, and no real fan base materialized. NBC never seemed comfortable with the whole thing, either.

The XFL's problem may have been that there was no pressing need for another football league. Or perhaps it was the level of play, which fell somewhere between small college and the kind of semi-pro sports where the spouses bring box lunches for players to eat in the stands at halftime. But we think it was also the victim of its own staginess: smoke machines, fireworks, strippers in hot tubs, those ridiculous nicknames. This league had no interest in female viewers. In fact, it seemed determined to drive them away.

Perhaps the XFL might have survived if it had played for laughs and melodrama as the WWF does. If chairs were thrown, balls were greased, and victories were snatched from defeat by bad calls (quick cut to the referee's cowering mother being threatened by a guy with a big handlebar mustache and a black cape). Well, probably not.

We think the lesson here is that, while anything goes on entertainment shows and programmers even apparently get to fudge a little on the reality front, we like our TV sports straight up. Save the pageant for halftime. It gives us a chance to mow the front lawn.