Idiot boxers

Determined to stamp out TV "indecency," Sen. Ted Stevens convened a whole roomful of poohbahs. The result: A bitter dispute over the Venus de Milo.

Published November 30, 2005 12:30PM (EST)

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens has been trying all year to clean up the boob tube. "Sexual content on television is rampant, even during the family viewing hour," Stevens told the National Association of Broadcasters this spring. The problem, he said, spans cable, network and satellite programming, including routine shows rife with "four-letter words with participles."

"We spend millions to promote abstinence, while the public airwaves are increasingly promoting sex," he complained.

But so far the Senate's most senior Republican has not come up with a solution. He faces too many competing interests -- from the powerful cable, satellite and broadcast industries to the Christian right -- to expand indecency rules. "It's hard for those of us in government to really know what to do," Stevens admitted this week.

So on Tuesday, he tried a new tack. Stevens gathered together top executives from all the major television networks, big radio conglomerates, major communications industry trade groups, and leaders of groups tied to the religious right, including the Parents Television Council and the Christian Coalition. Then he asked them all to talk sensibly to one another, warning that if they did not come up with some compromise to deal with the profusion of racy material on network, satellite and cable television, he might put forward a plan that will please nobody.

It was a nice idea.

What followed was more than six hours of bickering, distracting debates and cross talk. The ad hoc panel of 26, which sat around a large green table in one of the Senate's largest hearing rooms, spent most of the time dodging and weaving through the discussion, while taking pot shots at their competitors or ideological foes across the room. With one or two exceptions, none of the participants showed any real interest in finding a solution, despite the senators' pleadings.

When Bill Bailey, an executive for XM Satellite Radio, made the case that his broadcasts should not be regulated for indecency since they are not public, Jessica Marventano, an executive from Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio chain, objected, calling that a "distinction without a difference." Network execs from CBS and ABC, who bragged about their elaborate standards reviews, spent their time sparring with a rural cable provider about an unrelated price dispute.

Bruce Reese, who heads the National Association of Broadcasters, complained that his members were being treated "as second-class citizens" because they used the public airwaves and were subject to regulation by the Federal Communications Commission.

Across the room, a representative of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, home to several dubious, and wealthy, televangelists, spent his time arguing with Kyle McSlarrow, the head of the National Cable Television Association, over whether his station should be carried in basic cable packages. When the topic turned to indecency, McSlarrow, who opposes any regulation of cable, changed the subject. He said his greatest concern was the violent images of war shown on the nightly news. "It's my job to keep [my children] out of the TV area when the news is on," he said.

Actor Joey Pantoliano, who played a turncoat in "The Matrix" and the slimeball mafioso Ralph on "The Sopranos," made an appearance on behalf of the Creative Coalition, a group of Hollywood artists. He suggested that television networks run a scroll on their shows to alert parents to an imminent violent or sexual scene. He said he was upset to learn that parents let their teenage children watch "The Sopranos," since the show "is simply not appropriate for anyone under the age of 18."

But the best fireworks flew between two other members of the panel, conservative scold L. Brent Bozell III of the Parents Television Council and Jack Valenti, the former head of the Motion Picture Association of America. Valenti, dressed in impeccable pinstripes with white cuffs, was the shortest man in the room but he cast the largest shadow, seducing the gallery of lobbyists and reporters with his trademark erudition and wit, including a couple of anecdotes from his days as an aide to President Lyndon Johnson.

Valenti, 84, who is responsible for the voluntary rating system used in movies, argued that the television industry should regulate its own content. He had no patience for all the conservative shock and awe over the occasional broadcast slip-up, like Janet Jackson's Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. "The idea that the whole county, all of us, get upset over a three-second version of an artificial breast to me is the most absurd thing in the world," he said. "As if you can't go into any museum and see nude women. My god, the Venus de Milo is known all around the world."

"You knew Venus de Milo. You were probably a friend of hers," Bozell shot back a few minutes later, taking a dig at Valenti's age by paraphrasing the words of Lloyd Bentsen in the 1988 vice-presidential debates. "Janet Jackson is no Venus de Milo."

Bozell argued that the problem was not simply a matter of educating parents to screen their children from indecent content. He wanted certain television shows removed. "We are not talking about little indecencies here. We are talking about big, big indecencies," he said. "And I want to ask people around this room, and our friends at the networks, to tell me where there is a market demand for the things we are now talking about protecting." He was referring to pedophilia, incest, bestiality and necrophilia, themes that often turn up in TV crime dramas, notably the nation's favorite show, "CSI."

The din of clashing opinions did not ease the decision facing Sens. Stevens and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who co-chairs the Commerce Committee with Stevens. Both have said they plan to introduce a bill in January to address TV's indecency problem.

At the hearing, Stevens mentioned several approaches. He proposed to provide a new legislative definition of indecency, increase indecency fines, expand indecency to cover cable and satellite, and require changes in the way cable is sold to consumers. He suggested a new campaign to educate parents about the V-chip, which can filter out objectionable television programs.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin made the case for government rules that would require cable providers to sell basic cable channels like MTV and E! one at a time, affording parents more choice. The industry has objected to the proposal and promised a protracted legal battle if the Senate moves forward with any forced change to the cable business model.

By the end of the hearing, Stevens looked optimistic, siding with less controversial proposals like encouraging the cable industry to improve its own voluntary ratings system and increasing awareness of the V-chip. "I think we are in a period of change," he said. He planned to hold another indecency meeting on Dec. 12.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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