Even kids' TV shows know the Federal Communciations Commission—charged with regulating various aspects of communications infrastructure, licensing broadcast TV and radio stations, and policing content on the nation's over-the-air TV and radio stations—is a joke.
In practice, the FCC routinely thwarts the innovation and competition it self-consciously claims to promote. And when it comes to protecting the sensitive ears and eyes of Americans young and old, it really is best understood as an arm of the Parents Television Council, an "anti-indecency" group that in 2003 and 2004, accounted for fully 99 percent of viewer complaints not related to Janet Jackson's notorious nip-slip that drove a country mad.
The FCC these days is best known for trying to take control of the Internet either through agency head Julius Genachowski's "light touch" shenanigans and relitigating ancient "fleeting expletives" murmured by such titans of American culture as Nicole Richie during awards shows.
But here comes iCarly to the rescue! For those without children under the ages of about 15, iCarly is a funny and long-running Nickelodeon show about a group of zany Seattle-based kids who put on a webcast. Premiering in 2007, the show will wrap up its run in November 2012.
In a recent one-hour special, the cast goes to New York to appear on super-fan Jimmy Fallon's late-night show when one of the characters suffers a major wardrobe malfunction that would make Justin Timberlake blush.
As a result of what's dubbed the "trouser wowzer," the kids end up getting fined $500,000 by the "NCC," the show's version of the FCC. Hilarity ensues and all is made right in the end as the kids gather the money to pay the fine.
Somewhere in the Historical Baseball Abstract, the single-greatest volume of baseball-ania ever written, Bill James discusses the corrosive effects of having rules in place that everyone disregards as plainly uneforceable and whose enforcement is thus always arbitrary (if memory serves, he was talking about catchers blocking the plate). The point is that such anomalies undermine confidence in the entire system, including in rules and adjudication is fully legitimate.
When it comes to the FCC and its sad-sack patroling of broadcast TV and radio for the constitutionally indefensible category of "indecent" speech, we are fast approaching that point. The FCC does virtually nothing useful anymore other than seek to expand its power over the internet and cable and satellite communications (the means by which virtually all Americans receive their media). The more it continues to badger broadcasters with stupid fines over incidents of manipulated outrage just hastens its demise.
iCarly's "iShock America" episode is hardly the final straw that breaks the FCC's back, but if I were Genachowski and company, I'd be worried as hell. When a kids show is making fun of one of your major functions, you're in deep, deep trouble.
There's a generation out there being raised on kid lit like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and Lois Lowry and Margaret Peterson Haddix novels, all of which are fiercely deconstructive toward illegitimate and plain dumb authority.
On top of that, you've got several older generations that are not appalled by the prospect of very funny and foul-mouthed auteur Seth McFarlane hosting the Oscars—they're questioning why he would bother headlining something that is the equivalent of a TV movie featuring silent-era movie stars.
The only folks who seem upset at the prospect are the Parents Television Council, whose members, like Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, would get out of their wheelchairs to turn the channel if only they could (but alas, they can't).