Fast forward to January 2006. It’s a Sunday night and 9 p.m. is fast approaching. You have a few friends over and the speculation is rampant about which characters won’t survive this, the last season of The Sopranos. Your screen lights up as you hit the “on” button on the remote. The trumpeting sounds of the HBO original production theme music strikes up. And then . . . then . . . something must be wrong. There’s no Tony, there’s no Carmella, no Paulie Walnuts. No Sopranos at all.
Then it dawns on you: President Bush and “concerned” congressional leaders must have followed through on their threat to extend the FCC’s “indecency standard” to cable and satellite.
And it won’t just be the Sopranos getting the boot from primetime. There’ll be no more Chris Rock specials. No more Howard Stern on the E Channel. No more R-rated films.
The White House is now trying to distance Bush from his own public statement in favor of cable and satellite censorship. The back-pedaling makes sense, given that millions of taxpaying Americans now enjoy the right to watch the TV programming of their choice. Yet the chair of the Senate commerce committee, Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska, continues to talk of reining in paid channels, saying most Americans don’t distinguish between broadcast and cable or satellite programming.
For those of you who think I’m overstating the impact of expanding the FCC’s indecency rules, consider this. Last November, ABC ran the academy-award winner Saving Private Ryan in honor of Veterans Day. Unfortunately, millions of Americans missed it because over 60 ABC affiliates opted to not show this film, which details—in an admittedly graphic way—the true sacrifice made by America’s “Greatest Generation” on the beaches of Normandy and across Western Europe. The culture of censorship has become so oppressive on broadcast television that these stations feared the movie would run afoul of the FCC’s indecency standards and subject them to huge fines.
The drumbeat of censorship is beating so loud that programmers and networks have become hypersensitive not only to the prospect of government fines but also to the possibility that they will “offend” the sensibilities of one or another viewer.
In January 2004, CBS refused to air a political advertisement during the Super Bowl by MoveOn.org that was critical of President Bush’s role in creating the federal deficit. In November 2004, CBS and NBC refused to run a 30-second ad from the United Church of Christ because it suggested that gay couples were welcome in their church. The networks felt that it was “too controversial” to air. In January, many PBS stations refused to air an episode of the children’s show Postcards From Buster after Education Secretary Margaret Spellings objected to the show’s content, which included Buster, an eight-year-old bunny rabbit, learning how to make maple syrup from a gay family in Vermont. An episode of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow that included appraisal of an antique nude lithograph was edited so as not to offend.
As bad as the current censorship situation is, it is likely to become much worse. That’s because legislation has recently been passed that raises FCC “indecency” fines to up to $500,000. Broadcast radio and television stations can’t help but reconsider the kind of programming they will play, the topics they will discuss, and the kind of guests who will appear. Because the indecency standard is incredibly vague, stations will end up self-censoring material because they won’t want to risk the exorbitant fines. Controversial and cutting-edge programming will grow increasingly rare.
And now, President Bush and congressional leaders like Senator Stevens are threatening to go even further. For the first time, they want to apply “indecency standards” to cable, to satellite, and even to the Internet. If they have their way, it means good bye to The Sopranos, goodbye to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, goodbye to Queer as Folk, goodbye to the boys of South Park, goodbye Dave Chapelle, goodbye to just about everything on Cinemax (not really everything, but you know the ones I mean), and many other shows enjoyed by millions. All of these shows will be removed from TV altogether, substantially re-written, or banished to late night.
In a broader sense, this push to censor demonstrates that the extreme right-wing Republicans who now control the White House and Congress believe that the federal government should tell every American what they may or may not consume on cable or satellite TV, or the Web—even though consumers are paying for those services. At a time when we hear the president and other Republicans talking about the need to spread “freedom” throughout the world, these same politicians apparently believe that Americans should not have the freedom to watch TV programs of their choice. What hypocrisy! And, remember, these are the same folks who told us year after year (before they got power) how dangerous the federal government was and how we had to get government “off the backs” of the people.
If the president, Senator Stevens, and other right-wingers are offended by programs that are on cable TV, there is a simple solution to their problem. Turn the TV off or change the channel! If they are concerned about children watching racy or controversial programs, a legitimate concern, there are existing mechanisms to block that programming which they should take advantage of—including having the cable company block channels they don’t want in their home.
So the next time you are watching something on cable, satellite, or the Internet that’s not suitable for all ages, ask yourself if you really want the Morality Commissars at the FCC pulling the plug. The time has come for all Americans who love freedom to let the government know that they don’t want Uncle Sam turning into Big Brother.
Congressman Bernie Sanders, an Independent, represents Vermont and is the author of legislation that would bar the FCC from imposing its indecency rules on cable, satellite, and the Internet.