Sunday, March 21, 2004

OBSCENE SCENE: Rolling on from the recent scare of an African American Mammary Gland on obscured view on television, America's New Victorian Era progresses from dawn to mid-morning, with Congress raising the maximum fine for obscenity and stretching the terms so that "non-licensees" can be fined for bad behaviour on the airwaves. This means not just getting on for a twenty fold increase in the fine, but a major shift from who the US government holds responsible for the content of programmes. When Bono swore his face off at an awards ceremony, the "crime" was judged to be the broadcaster's, for not taking the time to bleep out the rudery and protect the children - the poor, sweet, innocent children - of America; likewise, with the Jackson Superbowl, it was CBS who were deemed to have been wrong from the FCC point of view. Now, though, Mr. Vox and Miss Jackson would be getting fixed penalty notices from the broadcast regulators.

This is a subtle but worrying shift: by empowering the government to fine the guest rather than the broadcaster, it's raising the possibility that edgy, difficult bands, commedians and even thinkers might find themselves turning down the chance to appear on television in case a slip of the tongue leaves them looking at bankruptcy. Remember, we're living in an era where it's zero-tolerance, no excuses - and nearly anyone could find themselves with a half a million buck slip of the tongue.

There's no great mystery as to why Congress has been happy to shift responsibility from the broadcasters to the guests and performers themselves. The performers, of course, don't have nightly news programmes that play a major role in shaping the way people vote. The new "polluter pays" rules play up to the demands of America's vocal-but-tiny New Victorians, while providing a comfortable escape route to save the FCC from ever having to hold Fox responsible for its own output. Everyone, except lovers of arts and music and free speech, is a winner.

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