US scrubs potty mouths and covers nipples on TV

The United States government is stepping in to wash potty mouths and clothe exposed bodies on the national airwaves, with new fines that increase penalties tenfold for violating decency standards.

The new measures, signed into law in mid-June by President George Bush, culminate years of pressure from religious conservative groups to “clean up” the airwaves.

“The era of slap on the wrist has ended,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, one of several conservative pressure groups pushing for more family-friendly airwaves.

Whether its soldiers swearing in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a curse that slips out of a pop star’s mouth, or more grown-up material on hits like Desperate Housewives and the syndicated sitcom Friends—US television networks will be forced to clean up their act or pay a fine of $325 000 per infringement, up from $32 500.

“I can’t wait to see the next Frontline documentary about US soldiers in Iraq where the saltiest language after an explosion will be ‘Dang, that hurt,’” wrote Vince Horiuchi, who reviews television shows for the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper.

Psychology professor Timothy Jay at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who has written several books about cursing, was also unimpressed.

“The French sociologists Bourdieu and Foucault pointed out that when the government or the church conspire to make things forbidden it increases the potency of those things. It just builds up a desire to see or break those taboos,” he argued.

“Swearing has positive aspects,” he added. “It allows us to express our anger, our frustration with someone without being physical.”

The new law was the by-product of pop singer Janet Jackson’s infamous January 2004 Super Bowl half-time concert, when the nation caught a glimpse of her right nipple in what she sheepishly described as a “wardrobe malfunction”.

This fleeting image triggered an avalanche of more than one million complaints to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the airwaves.

The result: following the Jackson incident the number of FCC indecency fines skyrocketed to nearly $8-million for 2004, up from a mere $440 000 in 2003.

And the complaints continue to multiply.
For only the first three months of 2006, the FCC counts more than 275 000 complaints and collected nearly $4-million in fines.

TV Watch, an advocacy group launched by major media corporations that include the corporate parents of NBC and CBS networks, believe the complaining is overblown.

“The vast majority of complaints come from a handful of people encouraged by activists to complain about these shows and not the viewers themselves,” they said in a statement.

Tim Winter, director of Parents Television Council (PTC), an influential Christian advocacy group, disagrees. “The overwhelming number of parents are very concerned about this issue,” he said.

According to the PTC, “the overwhelming research shows that children who view sexual themes at an early age are more likely to become sexually active at an early age”.

Jay, the psychologist, disagrees.

“There’s no evidence of harm,” he said. “You can take any of those cases, including Janet Jackson, Saving Private Ryan, and look what happened the next day? Did they wet their bed, did they have post traumatic stress symptoms, did they become anxious, depressed? The answer is there isn’t any harm.”

A full 75% of Americans seem to favour measures to clean up the airwaves, according to a Pew poll conducted in March 2005, but barely one-third say they were personally anxious about sex and violence on television.

And 48% of those polled believe that government intervention in the entertainment industry is more dangerous than any negative contact effect coming from a television show. - Sapa-AFP

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