THE BLOG
05/26/2006 01:15 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The "Indecency" Fraud

Responding to the complaints of hundreds of thousands of Americans offended by the "indecent" programming they and their children are watching on television, the Senate unanimously passed a tenfold increase in the maximum fine the Commission may levy against indecent broadcasters. With the Parents Television Council, the leading pressure group demanding higher fines and stricter government "indecency" regulation, proclaiming itself satisfied, this huge increase in fines will likely become law.

So, this is a great victory for America's parents, right? Hardly.

Those tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of complaints we all keep hearing about - they're, well, forgive me, I know it's too easy, but I can't resist - they're bullshit. They're a fraud.

The FCC received approximately 6,500 complaints about an episode of CBS's hit show "Without a Trace," which featured a brief scene of a teen sex orgy. With so many offended Americans complaining, no wonder the FCC imposed a $3.6 million fine on CBS and its affiliates, even though the "Trace" scene was hardly remarkable to anyone who has ever watched music videos or soap operas.

But a Wall Street Journal review of the numbers found that of those 6,500 complaints, all but three appeared to originate as computer-generated form letters.

The PTC claims credit for submitting thousands of complaints to the FCC about the April 7, 2003 episode of Fox's "Married by America" that the Commission ultimately fined $1.2 million. But blogger Jeff Jarvis, former TV Guide critic, used the Freedom of Information Act to discover that "all but two came from the so-called Parents Television Council's automated kvetch-machine."

According to an investigation done by the conservative Progress and Freedom Foundation [pdf], when the PTC emails its list-serve to complain about a show, a single click on its email complaint form can generate six or more "complaints" since the FCC counts separately each complaint to each Commissioner's office and other FCC offices. Making these numbers even more phony, there is no requirement that the complainer's children or even the complainer himself actually view the offending show, let alone be offended by it. It's the PTC/FCC version of click-fraud.

Yesterday's release of a Kaiser Family Foundation study showing that more young children than ever are watching television for longer periods, and that a third of America's children under age 6 have televisions in their bedrooms, is being cited by some to justify even heavier government regulation of TV programming. But it actually makes the opposite point - parents feel increasingly comfortable using the television as the babysitter because they have confidence in the tools and choices they need to monitor what the kids are watching. All parents are concerned about what's on television - to be otherwise is irresponsible. But with on-screen ratings, and V-chips, and set-top boxes that block channels, and the old-fashioned alternatives of changing the channel, pulling the plug, or taking the TV out of the kids' bedroom, parents today understand they don't need to rely on Big Brother censoring the tube to raise their children as they wish.

As Peggy Charren, the founder of Action for Children's Television and "Mother of Quality Children's Television," points out, censorship doesn't protect children. It harms children, too often depriving them of access to "unobjectionable and appropriate creative works that are challenging, controversial, original, and important."

How many parents were denied the opportunity to sit with their children to watch "Saving Private Ryan" on Veteran's Day 2004 when one third of the nation's ABC stations chose to yank that Oscar-winning film for fear of an FCC fine? How many parents might want their children to watch Martin Scorsese's wonderful "Bluesmen" documentary on PBS, but will be deprived now that the FCC has fined the show because the bluesmen talk like, surprise surprise, bluesmen? The First Amendment gives parents that right. But the government seems hell bent on taking it away.

Far from being a victory for America's parents, the tenfold increase in indecency fines is a defeat. Rather than have the government decide for them what to watch on TV, polls show the vast majority of Americans prefer to decide for themselves. A nationwide survey conducted by Russell Research [pdf] found that only twelve percent of American voters prefer that the government - and not individuals - decide what's appropriate for television. In fact, those who prefer government control are such a small minority that they're even outnumbered by the one-fifth of Americans who believe that alien abductions have taken place.

So, of course, the Senate - the "World's Greatest Deliberative Body" - the Body that can talk any subject to death -- exhaustively debated these important Constitutional issues before it passed its indecency bill? The Senators thoroughly examined the "chilling effect" that television already suffers from, thanks to greatly expanded and consistently inconsistent FCC indecency decisions, even under the current lower FCC fines?

Well, uh, no. Actually, the bill passed late at night in a nearly empty chamber after an unusual parliamentary maneuver by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) that assured approval unless any senator objected.

Not one Senator objected.

Such is the incredible political power of the "indecency" fraud.