The Federal Communications Commission wields immense power. The commission is given legal exception, bypassing the laws by which most systems are bound to keep content it finds objectionable from public airwaves. This power was pushed further on April 1, when the FCC proposed a loosening of the obscenity definition, specifically considering a shift from the current, stringent standards only targeting “egregious” obscenity.
The FCC also holds a large amount of social influence. In deciding what can be shown on television, the FCC shapes public discourse and directly controls what we deem obscene.
This is not to say the FCC is immune to naysayers — in the last couple of years it has attracted heightened criticism. The FCC is allowed to make subjective decisions, the results of which have major implications. This subjectivity is typified by the FCC’s decision to allow networks to air uncensored versions of “Saving Private Ryan,” labeling its obscenities in the name of artistic merit. But other films that employed profanity and made similar arguments were idiosyncratically censored. With the commission’s proposed policy shift, isolated or “fleeting” instances of profanity and even nudity could be allowed to air, while prolonged or recurring instances would continue to be censored.
The FCC has opened this proposition up to the public’s opinions on its website. Some, such as the Parents Television Council, voice concern for the health of children exposed to such content, while others assert that the FCC policy has restricted content for far too long.
Marjorie Heins, an NYU professor of media, culture and communications, notes the discrepancies in the arguments of those fearful for the wellness of children in the face of such a change. For one, this shift is less revolutionary than it appears at a first glance.
“The FCC is basically proposing to go back to its pre-2004 regime,” Heins said, referring to the strengthening of standards in 2004 following the Janet Jackson Super Bowl Halftime show.
But nearly 10 years in hindsight, the media fervor behind this major event has cooled.
“There will be the usual hue and cry from the self-appointed guardians of our media morality,” Heins said.
Additionally, television is under more scrutiny than other mediums.
Why is it then that television continues to employ such rigid censorship? America seems so socially liberal as of late — why don’t these standards evolve with our tastes? Heins has a theory for this, too.
“Rigid censorship … is not a big issue for [most Americans], so they are not as likely to be vocal or write to the FCC about it,” she said.
Perhaps with the FCC’s invitation of feedback, audiences can expect to see changes in our culture reflected on the TV screen.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2013 print edition. Jake Folsom is a staff writer. Email him at [email protected]