Public, advocacy groups stir debate on indecency in media - KPTV - FOX 12

Who's watching what's going into what your kids are watching?

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(RNN) - Newton Minow called television a "vast wasteland" half a century before anyone would ever have thought to allow four-letter words or implied nudity on broadcast television.

The television industry implemented its Parental Guidelines and V-chip 16 years ago, making it the last major entertainment medium - the internet withstanding - to have some type to parental warning about potentially offensive content.

The pending confirmation of a new Federal Communications Commission chairman, an ongoing debate about indecency in the media and unprecedented access to information raise the question: Are parental content systems fulfilling their intended purpose?

The music industry does not have a rating system, rather, it is left to the discretion of labels and distributors to place the "Parental Advisory" sticker on potentially offensive content.

The rating systems for movies, TV and video games are all voluntary, and TV networks rate their own programs. Members of the board that rates video games do not play games before they are released, but rely on producers to self-report content.

That's a problem, according to the Parents Television Council, an advocacy group that has spent several years fighting for tighter regulations of TV content.

The group released a report in June that found during the first four months of 2013, nearly 70 percent of blurred or pixilated full-body nudity occurred on shows rated TV-PG. The report also found 94 percent of those shows did not contain an "S" descriptor warning of heightened sexual content.

"People who produce content rate their own content, and so they have built-in economic incentive to do so inaccurately," said Dan Isett, PTC director of public policy. "If the ratings are inaccurate to begin with the V-chip parental controls are ineffectual. This once again gets the FCC involved because they have oversight over the entire [TV ratings] system."

Isett's argument is networks do not rate programs with mature content accurately because they fear it will drive advertisers away.

FCC nominee Tom Wheeler lightly hinted at the subject by quoting Minow during his Senate confirmation hearing on June 18.

"He did that without regulatory authority. It caught the public's attention," Wheeler said of the comments by Minow, a former FCC chairman. "Maybe it's possible to do the same kind of thing today and say ‘can't we do better?'"

It's difficult to speculate whether Wheeler has in mind revisions for the Parental Guidelines system since he isn't officially FCC chair yet, and he mostly dodged Senators' questions about his agenda.

But the voices of people on both sides of the issue leave no doubt he will have to deal with it in some capacity sooner or later.

One day after Wheeler's confirmation hearing before the Senate, FOX Broadcasting Company filed a brief suggesting the FCC should entirely give up regulating and attempting to enforce broadcast decency limits.

"Time and technology have moved inexorably forward, but the commission's untenable effort to define indecent content through a hodgepodge of inconsistent and uneven rulings remain stuck in a bygone era," the brief said.

The fight for free speech

Pushback against the FCC came to a head last year when FOX sued the commission. The FCC slapped the network with fines for swear words uttered during nationally televised awards shows. The instances were in violation of a policy on incidental profanity and nudity in place since 2004.

The Supreme Court voted 8-0 in favor of FOX, explaining the FCC policy was too vague, and the fines were overturned. However, the policy was not deemed to be in violation of the First Amendment, meaning it remained in place.

The FCC invited public comments on whether it should relax its policy this year. More than 101,000 people responded in favor of upholding the current guidelines.

"I oppose any changes to the current FCC indecency standards. The FCC must continue to vigorously oppose all indecent content, even if brief or 'fleeting,'" wrote a respondent from New York.

Much of the entertainment industry's argument is established on defense against censorship and freedom of speech, and the fight did not begin recently.

As early as the 1930s, the American Civil Liberties Union has defended freedom of expression for various media. One focus of the ACLU's fight was the now-defunct Hays Code for Hollywood movies, which was in place from 1930 until the late 1960s. The code prohibited - among other things - nudity, suggestive dancing, homosexuality, interracial relationships, passionate kissing and mocking religion.

A new rating system for big-screen movies was introduced in 1968 and was revised multiple times before it became the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) in 2004.

It wasn't until the mid-1990s that other industries followed suit and devised some combination of content guidelines, rating systems and warnings for consumers.

Isett said rather than overhaul the ratings systems, emphasis must first be put on educating parents and advancing technology to reflect the times.

"V-chip technology has not changed one iota in 15 years. How many other electronic items can you say that about?" said Isett. "There have been rapid and vast changes in technology in the last 15 years, but the entertainment industry is committed to this outdated model we have. Inasmuch as flaws in the system exist, they could do a whole lot more about educating people how it works."

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