Joel Stein is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times – officially a "humor" columnist, but that’s a matter of debate. A few months ago, he drew attention for baldly stating he did not support the troops in the Iraq war, and that "an army of people ignoring their morality is horrifying."
Last week, he decided to mock the Federal Communications Commission for a $3.6 million fine of individual CBS stations for airing a teenager-orgy scene on the Thursday night drama "Without A Trace." But a funny thing happened on the way to the Janet Jackson jokes. He asked CBS for a DVD of the episode: "And, to my shock, I was honestly disgusted."
Stein declared the FCC has "a long history of only fining the inanely offensive, but he wrote that even though the moral of the "Without a Trace" episode was that teen sex orgies can lead to murders, "the slick-looking Jerry Bruckheimer production made the shockingly long, 56-second sex scene look awesome, all blue-lighted and threesome-filled and zit-free."
After some jokes about the zit-free teen scene being unrealistic, Stein added, "None of this would be upsetting if they were adults. But sexualizing children is creepy. These are the kinds of gutsy positions we Op-Ed columnists are paid to take."
The problem in today’s TV debate is that taking this side is no longer as obvious as it sounds to Stein. We can disagree on whether an adult-orgy scene would also be offensive. But too many TV critics and commentators take a libertine approach – if the people will buy the vodka or the toothpaste in between the orgy scenes, why can’t the offended people just change channels and keep the government out of it?
In today's world, networks like CBS pay no attention to shocked viewers unless they complain to Washington. Only when the FCC fines someone (and not when the FCC decides not to fine) does the nation focus on the offending show, and some who don't like the FCC can at least admit that the network was sleazy. Demanding the government address sleazy TV is the only way sleazy TV gets any negative publicity.
Even when the FCC does fine, the networks and their affiliates get their lawyers to drag out the process indefinitely -- and the FCC is already slow on the turn-around. This CBS show aired on December 31, 2004. They could just pay the fine, instead of lawyers, but the process drags on.
After agreeing that CBS aired something truly offensive, Stein still believes that the FCC is wrong to punish the network. "Even though this soft-kiddie porn was in awful taste, the FCC should still abandon its fining campaign. It’s a losing battle that will do nothing but exacerbate the end of the broadcast networks by making them safer, more nervous and lamer than cable."
Any credit that Stein could earn from being "disgusted" by the "creepy" CBS show, he squanders with complete fatalism about the trajectory of television. By his lights, the networks are sledding down a slippery slope, and trying to insist on broadcast standards is hopeless, even counterproductive. Why should we care about the survival of the broadcast networks if they’re going to compete with the lust leaders of cable to see who can be more "disgusting" and "creepy"? Stein seems to suggest the survival of the broadcast networks is a nobler objective than some measure of decency and restraint in TV production.
At the CBS News blog called "Public Eye," blogger Brian Montopoli also ended up dissing the CBS team: "I watched the scene in question, and I do think it was graphic in a way that didn't seem to serve any function other than titillation," mocking CBS’s press-release protest that the teen-orgy scene "was not unduly graphic or explicit."
Too many pundits know that creepy TV is creepy. They know it’s disturbing. They know it can mess with the brains of young children. But they simply cannot bring themselves to support any action which would cause the TV networks to think twice. It is honorable for people who dislike FCC regulation to acknowledge that the networks sometimes go overboard. But they don’t earn points with parents by offering no solution other than turning off the tube. To quote Stein, they’re "an army of people ignoring their morality." And it’s "horrifying."