The Common Good
May 2004

Indecent Exposure

by Danny Duncan Collum | May 2004

The 'adult' standards of cable have seeped into the groundwater of broadcast television.

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It’s been several months now, but I know you’re still waiting to hear: "Was Sojourners’ pop culture columnist shocked by the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show?"

Frankly, no. I didn’t see it. The last time I watched the Super Bowl was in 1991. I don’t much like football. When I want to see young American men having their bodies crunched, mangled, and poisoned for the sake of corporate profit, I watch the Iraq war news.

But where else, you may ask, can one go to see shallow, narcissistic pop stars rip off articles of clothing? We don’t need football for that. For that we have MTV, the music video cable outlet that produced the notorious gridiron spectacle. And that brings me to the point. That tawdry Super Bowl display was just one more example of what can go wrong from corporate media monopolization.

So what do media monopolies have to do with Janet Jackson’s sad stab at reviving her career? It really is all connected. Viacom—one of approximately five remaining television companies in America—owns CBS, which broadcast the Super Bowl, and MTV, which produced the halftime show. That’s the "synergy" media execs were all slobbering for in the ’90s. Back in the days when CBS owned itself and wasn’t in the music video business, the halftime show would have been the business of the network’s sports division. And we all would have been spared a lot of embarrassment.

But there’s another layer to this stinking onion, and it has to do with the general slippage of "decency" standards in broadcast media. Ms. Jackson’s stunt was simply the logical conclusion to a process that began 10 years ago, with bare bottoms on NYPD Blue, and had reached some sort of climax a few months ago when NBC chose not to bleep Bono’s award-show F-word. This process of deterioration (or liberalization, if you prefer) is the result of the differing standards for broadcast, basic cable, and premium cable TV.

HISTORICALLY, CABLE HAS not been held to the same decency standards as broadcast TV. Broadcast TV comes into our home on the airwaves—supposedly uninvited. And the FCC has always held that we have a right to know that nothing truly vile will pop out of the box if some stray child turns it on at an odd hour. Cable was different. It was assumed that adults freely chose to get connected and pay the bills. If they didn’t like what they saw, they could pull the plug and go back to the big three networks.

But that has changed. Now "everyone" has cable or a dish (I don’t, maybe you don’t, but we don’t count). And it has become difficult to make the case that there should be one standard for five or six of the channels on your basic package, and a different one for the other 50 or 60. And it’s no surprise that this has not resulted in raising the standards for cable. Instead we’ve been dropping them for broadcast.

Now "premium" cable is driving the race to the bottom. HBO has full-frontal nudity in prime time. And the Emmy buzz on Sex and the City and The Sopranos has made people feel hopelessly out of the loop if they don’t subscribe. The logic is inexorable. It’s all TV. It all comes out of the same box. So what’s the difference? Inevitably the "adult" standards of HBO seep into the groundwater of the broadcast networks. In the age of corporate media, the drive to maximize quarterly profits and jack up the stock price only accelerates the appeals to sensation and whatever is considered "edgy" this month.

I’m not a prude. I’ve seen The Sopranos, and it’s brilliant. But it is for adults, and it needs to be accessible in an adults-only venue, which could mean that no one with children should be allowed to subscribe to HBO. That may be a sound notion, but it’s utterly untenable, especially in a culture where many parents are so unthinking that they put a cable-connected television in their preschooler’s bedroom.

The cultural health of our nation will continue to decline until the public interest is reasserted as the ruling principle of communications policy. And slowly, fitfully, the American public is waking up to that fact.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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