Are bloody gunshot wounds and flying chunks of flesh or viscera in "Saving Private Ryan" somehow more disturbing than those in "CSI"?
The year is ending as it began — with media attention focused once again on issues raised by the surprise guest appearance of Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl half time show. The Federal
Communications Commission recently decided to sock CBS with a $550,000 fine for broadcasting the bared boob.
CBS isn't taking the matter lightly and has not shied away from saying so. "We're going to fight it because we think it's wrong," CBS chairman and Viacom co-president and co-chief operating officer Les Moonves
declared on CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" Monday night during one of Letterman's lively "More with Les" telephone interviews. (In those segments, Letterman surprises Moonves with a phone call. Moonves
does not appear on camera but is heard answering Dave's questions.)
"We weren't responsible," Moonves said of the televised breast baring. "We're sorry it happened. It was a bad thing
that happened but it wasn't our fault."
Fault vs. Responsibility
Moonves was right on one count. Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" wasn't CBS' fault. Jackson herself, along with her brazen co-performer Justin Timberlake, whose name is rarely even associated
with the act anymore even though he was the one who grabbed Jackson's garment and ripped it from her chest, are the primary parties at fault. Simply put, they did it. We will never know if they truly intended
the shocking outcome, but they were the ones performing and they had mutually agreed to sing an adult song, dance in a suggestive manner and simulate a violent act by a young man against a middle aged woman, all
for the entertainment of the masses, including the millions of families known to watch the Super Bowl together every year.
Even if the offending performance was not CBS' fault, however, it was the network's responsibility because the network televised it. Every network's senior executives take credit for the success of quality programs on their schedule, but that door swings both ways. They are also responsible for
programming that proves unpopular or patently offensive.
MTV's Role in the Mess
The people at MTV who produced the half time show, and the executives to whom they report, must also share responsibility for what happened. I happen to think people at MTV are also at fault, because they produced the actual show, controlled its creative direction, hired specific
performers, approved specific performances and undoubtedly made lots of money doing so. Further, many other performances in the half time show were tasteless if not offensive in nature, given that the Super Bowl is a known family-viewing event, and the raunchy Jackson-Timberlake duet was in
many ways offensive even without the peek-a-boo.
Again, fault and responsibility are two different things. Letterman seemed to understand this. "Why don't you sue Janet Jackson?" he asked Moonves, unfortunately failing to suggest that CBS also hold Timberlake
legally responsible for the $550,000 mess.
"Well, if we have to pay the money
that could happen," Moonves replied. "Who knows?"
"That's what I would do
because it was her thing," Letterman followed.
With so many of the people involved in this shameful episode crying, "don't blame me," and failing to take a definitive position of leadership in the matter, is it any wonder that the American Family Association and
other content pressure groups have gained such momentum this year? CBS has already apologized. The network should stand firm, accept overall responsibility, deny fault, and then hold both
Jackson and Timberlake fully accountable for their inexcusable actions. CBS' scrappy corporate cousin MTV should not escape unscathed, either.
Is "Saving Private Ryan" Suddenly Obscene?
Just how much of an impact has the baring of Janet Jackson's breast and the FCC's response had on broadcast television this year? I guess that depends on what one finds offensive. NBC three weeks ago
breathlessly promoted a two-part serial killer story on "Third Watch" with teasers about a helpless teenage girl slowly being drained of blood by a psychopath. I found the promos offensive, but not the show itself. The
same goes for CBS' "CSI: NY" promos last week, featuring close-ups of likely murder victims with plastic over their faces gasping for air. I haven't heard any complaints about either spot. Meanwhile, the WB series "Smallville" and "One Tree Hill" and ABC's breakout hit "Desperate Housewives" have
stretched the boundaries of prime time nudity this season without a peep of protest.
Sixty-five ABC affiliates last week refused to air an uncut version of the ultra-violent R-rated World War II drama "Saving Private Ryan" during prime time on Veterans Day, but they seemed to cite concerns about
the language in the film (including plentiful use of the f-word) rather than its realistic but nevertheless horrifying violence. Apparently they believed that the FCC would take umbrage to this content and that citizens
might register outrage. Published reports this week indicate that the FCC did receive numerous complaints about the ABC telecast.
"Ryan" Didn't Prompt Protests in 2001 or 2002
Curiously, ABC aired "Saving Private Ryan" complete and uncut in all its foul-mouthed, blood-drenched glory in 2001 and 2002 without
a single complaint being filed. The world did not spin off its axis on either occasion. It seems our corner of the world has changed since that time.
Still, I don't believe anyone truly regards "Saving Private Ryan" as exploitative or obscene. To be honest, I was never completely comfortable with ABC (or any broadcaster) showing it uncut
because it is such an overwhelmingly violent film filled with language most people do not want to hear repeated over and over again in their living rooms. The bad words in the film could have been silently edited out
without thoroughly compromising the impact of the production, but would that seem silly, given the unsparing realism of the piece? As it was, ABC aired sufficient on-screen warnings about the content in advance promos for the movie and during the film itself. Perhaps this is much ado about
nothing. All I know is, broadcast television, already under attack from all sides, would be further lessened were it to stop presenting important movies and other historical and informative entertainment.
Meanwhile, given the widespread acceptance of ultra-violence in so many television series, specifically CBS' "CSI" shows, Fox' "24" and ABC's "Alias," I find myself reevaluating basic responses to
such content, regardless of format. Are bloody gunshot wounds and flying chunks of flesh or viscera in "Saving Private Ryan" somehow more disturbing than those in "CSI"? I think not. Does this conclusion
mean that, in terms of graphic violence, anything and everything goes in this new television world of ours? I hope not.
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