Remembering the Code

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Over at BuzzMachine, Jeff Jarvis is doing great work reminding readers of just how bland and boring much broadcast TV and radio fare was during the dreary days of the "code of decency." Which, he notes, only broke down in the '80s, partly due to the machinations of former broadcaster Ronald Reagan. As the FCC and other assorted lunkheads talk about the need to neuter what has been nothing less than a two-decade explosion in quality programming serving every goddamned niche imaginable–from The Teletubbies to The Sopranos, from Seinfeld to Strangers With Candy–it's worth remembering the rules that once governed the idiot box.

And it's worth remembering, too, that there's a real effort afoot to extend content regulation to basic cable. Legislators and contemporary Comstocks alike have been driven stark raving mad by too many doody jokes on Howard Stern and the blurred, momentary site of Janet Jackson's nipple.

Writes Jarvis:

SEAL OF GOOD CENSORSHIP: Since broadcasters—under pressure from government—are considering reinstating a code of decency, I thought I'd reexamine the Code of Practices that was rescinded—under pressure from government, namely the Reagan administration—in the '80s. Or in our parlance, I'm fisking The Code.

As irrelevant as The Code became, it's quite relevant today, for it will necessarily be the starting point, the touchstone for any new Code they create. Where's the line? Well, that's just the problem, isn't it? Where's the line? And who says where that is?

Some excerpts and comments:

Profanity, obscenity, smut and vulgarity are forbidden, even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience. From time to time, words which have been acceptable acquire undesirable meanings, and telecasters should be alert to eliminate such words.
No boobs, you boobs.

Attacks on religion and religous faiths are not allowed.
Reverence is to mark any mention of the name of God, His attributes and powers…. [Clergy] portrayed in their callings are vested with the dignity of their office and under no circumstances are to be held up to ridicule.
So The Code is explicitly trying to proselytize the nation. And it won't allow us to make fun of, oh, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, or hundreds of kiddie-diddling priests….

Illicit sex relatoins are not treated as commendable.
So much for prime time.

Drunkenness and narcotic addiction are never presented as desirable or prevalent.
The administration of illegal drugs will not be displayed.

Just ignore them and they're not there.

Exhibitions of fortune-telling, astrology, phrenology, palm-reading, and numerology are acceptable only when required by a plot…
So much for Crossing Over with John Edward….

The presentation of cruelty, greed and selfishness as worthy motivations is to be avoided.
So much for reality TV.

Unfair exploitation of others for personal gain shall not be presented as praiseworthy.
Donald Trump: You're fired!

The presentation of techniques of crime in such detail as to invite imitation shall be avoided.
CSI: You're canceled.

The use of horror for its own sake will be eliminated; the use of vusual or aural effects which would shock or alarm the viewer, and the detailed presentation of brutality or physical agony by sight or by sound are not permissible.
Well, I guess you won't be seeing Mel Gibson's The Passion on TV.

Law enforcement shall be upheld, and the officers of the law are to be portrayed with respect and dignity.
Unless they rob, steal, or beat up people for no reason. OK, destroy the Rodney King tape.

The presentation of murder or revenge as a motive for murder shall not be presented as justifiable.
While you're at it, destroy those "Murder, She Wrote" tapes.

The costuming of all performers shall be within the bounds of propriety, and shall avoid such exposure or such emphasis on anatomical detail as would embarrass or offend home viewers.
The movements of dancers, actors, or other performers shall be kept within the bounds of decency, and lewdness and impropriety shall not be suggested in the positions assumed by the performers.
Camera angles shall avoid such views of performers as to emphasize anatomical details indecently.

Henceforth to be known as the Janet Jackson Clause.

News reporting should be factual, fair, and without bias.
Commentary and analysis should be clearly identified as such.
Good taste should prevail in the selection and handling of news.

Insert punchline of choice here….

Whole thing here.

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  1. Would any changes only affect television channels that can be picked up with an antenna or dish, or also scrambled cable stations?

  2. Kill your television.

  3. Read a book.

  4. from the Code:

    “News reporting should be factual, fair, and without bias.
    Commentary and analysis should be clearly identified as such.”

    WTH!? They can’t take Dan Rather’s livelihood away, can they?

    Seriously, how come the FCC is acting as the fed censor comm? Isn’t their mandate different? I have heard arguments that FCC should guard/enforce the property rights of broadcasters and get out of regulating.

  5. Dreamer-

    Read a book? While I’m driving? I think the radio is safer, thanks.

  6. I think Ashcroft might have gone too far:

    In a speech in 2002, Ashcroft made it clear that the Justice Department intends to try [cracking down on porno]. He said pornography “invades our homes persistently though the mail, phone, VCR, cable TV and the Internet,” and has “strewn its victims from coast to coast.”

  7. It’s not invasion if the porn is invited.

  8. If I want my TV sanitized, I’ll gladly use Lysol over the FCC!

  9. Michael Copps, the Democratic FCC commissioner leading the censorship charge, is using the indecency issue as a Trojan horse for his real pet issue, stopping “media consolidation.” The consolidation argument makes no sense, however, when subjected to any logical scrutiny. As Jarvis’s post demonstrates, when there were *fewer* broadcasters it was *easier* to impose national standards. Media “diversity” makes centralized standards harder.

    Copps’s other anti-consolidation argument is that more programs should be made by “independent” producers, not large conglomerates. But there’s no guarantee “independent” programming won’t run afoul of community decency standards. Just look at independent films. Most of them are not what one would consider family fare. Indeed, the largest producer of G and PG-rated films are large studios such as Disney.

  10. > Jeff Jarvis is doing great work reminding readers of just how bland and boring much broadcast TV

  11. DJ:

    I don’t have to reconcile it. As I wrote, “just how bland and boring much broadcast TV and radio fare was….” I’m not suggesting that all of broadcast stuff was bad. Or that G-rated material is sub-par. In fact, I’m partial to the argument that the ’60s was the golden age (well, *a* golden age, among many others) of the TV sitcom. Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Get Smart–all were suitable for family viewing and all remain eminently smart and watchable.

    However, it’s important to remember that we still have access to all those shows–as well as much edgier programs. And new, excellent G-rated shows are being produced, too. The question is why would we want to go back to an older system that squelches expression.

  12. Ohmigod! I had forgotten what it was like back then.

  13. Andy Griffith, Perry Mason, Bonanza, I Love Lucy,
    Bewitched, and even the Brady Bunch? DJ, they had their day, I admit it, but they don’t draw flies anymore. TV is a mansion with many rooms, but if you read Variety, you’d know the biggest syndicated reruns of this era are Seinfeld and Friends, both of which regularly and openly deal with sex in a way impossible not too long ago. Meanwhile, more family-oriented shows from the same era, like Cosby and Home Improvement, don’t get the same numbers.

  14. Hmm, the mentioned portions of the code pretty much take care of all of Comedy Central, in which case I’m pretty much done with television….

  15. Jeff Jarvis is doing great work reminding readers of just how bland and boring much broadcast TV

    I wonder now if we don’t have the opposite problem. Take just radio, for instance. I have no interest in Howard Stern or Bubba the Love Sponge or any other shock jock shows. I’m not a prude. It’s just that I don’t wish to be bombarded by toilet humor 24 hours a day. But that means the only morning radio I can listen to is NPR. It’s either that, or loud dumb guys talking to porn stars. Those are my only choices, or so it seems. Frankly, bland is what I want sometimes. But it sure is hard to find.

    I do think it’s amusing that, once upon a time, you had to go out of your way to find smut, and now you have to go out of your way to escape it.

    Cue Tom Lehrer:

    Smut!
    Give me smut and nothing but
    A dirty novel I can’t shut
    If it’s uncut
    And unsubt
    Tle

    I’ve never quibbled if it was ribald
    I would devour where others merely nibbled
    As the judge remarked the day that he
    Acquitted my Aunt Hortense
    “To be smut it must be utterly without redeeming social importance”

    Por-
    Nographic pictures I adore
    Indecent magazines galore
    I like them more
    If they’re hard core

    Bring on the obscene movies, murals, postcards, neckties, samplers,stained-glass windows, tattoos, anything! More, more, I’m still not
    satisfied!

    Stories of tortures
    Used by debauchers
    Lurid, licentious, and vile
    Make me smile
    Novels that pander
    To my taste for candor
    Give me a pleasure sublime
    Let’s face it, I love slime

    All books can be indecent books
    Though recent books are bolder
    For filth, I’m glad to say, is in
    The mind of the beholder
    When correctly viewed
    Everything is lewd
    I could tell you things about Peter Pan
    And the Wizard of Oz, there’s a dirty old man

    I thrill
    To any book like Fanny Hill
    And I suppose I always will
    If it is swill
    And really fil-
    Thy

    Who needs a hobby like tennis or philately
    I’ve got a hobby, rereading Lady Chatterley
    But now they’re trying to take it all
    Away from us unless
    We take a stand, and hand in hand
    We fight for freedom of the press
    In other words

    Smut, I love it
    Ah, the adventures of a slut
    Oh, I’m a market they can’t glut
    I don’t know what
    Compares with smut

    Hip hip hooray
    Let’s hear it for the Supreme Court
    Don’t let them take it away

  16. “Attacks on religion and religous faiths are not allowed.”

    “The presentation of cruelty, greed and selfishness as worthy motivations is to be avoided.”

    “Unfair exploitation of others for personal gain shall not be presented as praiseworthy.”

    Goodbye C-SPAN.

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