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July 24, 2010

Parents should decide on children's television viewing

Cary Brunswick
Daily Star

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Back when my daughters were teenagers, the big debate over television viewing centered on the "Beverly Hills, 90210" series that most weeks featured high school kids playing tonsil hockey while bumping and grinding on living room couches.

Lacking a manual on ideal parenting to consult, we had to decide for ourselves to let them watch the show, figuring that avoiding taboos would make it easier for them to make rational choices.

But we also knew many parents who did forbid their teens to watch the series, which also is an understandable position.

It was a case of parents deciding how they wanted to regulate their children's access to television. And that's who should be calling the shots, not the government.

That's why a federal appeals court made the right decision last week when it said the Federal Communications Commission's rules on alleged broadcast indecency were too vague to be constitutional.

The court apparently thought the FCC's standards were about as hard to make out as the breast of Janet Jackson, whose Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" six years ago led to the indecency crackdown.

The FCC should abandon its attempt to stifle the spontaneous expressions of speech, fashion and sexuality, and leave such regulating where it belongs _ with adult viewers and parents.

According to the FCC, broadcast indecency is defined as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities."

Such indecent programming contains patently offensive sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity, the FCC states.

The FCC acknowledges that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely, so the agency has barred the broadcast of alleged indecent content during times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be watching, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Since the "wardrobe malfunction' in 2004 and spontaneous uses of the f-word during live awards' broadcasts, the FCC cracked down and had attempted to level stiff fines for what it says are violations of the indecency standards, such as a $500,000 penalty for CBS, which aired the Janet Jackson halftime show. The courts, however, have sided with networks that fought such fines.

Broadcasters had complained that it was impossible to decide what might be deemed indecent. For example, the FCC said a network's airing of the World War II movie "Saving Private Ryan" was OK, but then fined a PBS station for a documentary on blues musicians who uttered some of the same "indecent" words.

If the FCC can't even be consistent in its interpretations of its decency standards, then how can broadcasters be expected to?

Television today is laced with shows embedded with sexual content and innuendo, some of which make the old "90210" series seem naive. The programs may not have dialogues including the f-word or star women who bare entire breasts, but the implications are clear.

What's not clear is where the indecency line is crossed.

Apparently that's the way the appeals court viewed the situation in its recent ruling. It's too bad the judges didn't go further and place the arbiter for decency in the hands of the adults holding the remote controls, and the parents with the ability to control what their children watch.

It was the same situation a few years back, when the government tried to force libraries to block access to websites related to sex on their public computers or lose federal funding.

Librarians rightly were as opposed to blocking such sites as they were to banning books, saying that the responsibility for controlling youths' Internet surfing should rest with parents, not with libraries.

And, pragmatically, librarians also said blocking would limit access to websites that were educational and not pornographic, for example, breast cancer sites.

Television is not going to be filled with profanity and wardrobe issues just because of the court ruling. Shows and networks still must face the marketplace of Nielsen ratings and viewer reaction, which is exactly why we don't need the government trying to tell people what they can or cannot see on TV.

If the FCC wants to pursue the case, its options now are to appeal the latest court ruling to the Supreme Court or go back to the drawing board and come up with more-specific definitions of what counts as indecency.

It would be better for constitutional free speech and for personal freedom if the FCC drops the matter and leaves decisions about decency in the hands of adults and parents. Let's face it. It's difficult to regulate TV programs without violating the First Amendment.

Cary Brunswick of Oneonta is a freelance writer and editor and writes a column every three weeks for The Daily Star's Weekend edition. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.