Saturday, October 8, 2005

Censorship Follies

Hey, everybody! Something objectionable is coming on! -- Dodo in Animal Crackers, after hearing "objectionable content" warning on TV

I was inspired to write this by an article listing many of the books that people tried to have removed from libraries during the year 2000. Aside from the controversial sorts of books about homosexuality (I Have Two Mommies) or sexuality, there were other standard censorship targets like Huckleberry Finn (for homosexual innuendo on this occasion, I think) and Catcher in the Rye (which I found to be formidably dull when I read it 35 years ago). But also included were books like The Lord of the Flies, A Light in the Attic (Shel Silverstein's award winner), and the entire Harry Potter series. Flies was on my high school senior summer reading list, and I went to school in a small town, as conservative as could be. In fact, a good portion of my reading list for that summer was on this list. Where these people when I needed them?

But all this got me to thinking about the current conservative religious folks who call up the FCC every week to report some evil, satanic, or downright dirty program, hoping to have the miscreants fined into oblivion. We have Janet Jackson to thank for this nonsense, and, frankly, I am tired of it.

What's ridiculous about this attempted censorship is that it simply proves that everyone is really watching these shows. Look, the networks aren't going to waste time and money putting stuff on the air no one watches. Since these shows are so highly rated, evidently a lot of the people who object to them are watching them on a regular basis. Else, how would they know that someone did something lascivious last night?

People don't get it: If you don't like what's on, don't watch it. Don't let your kids watch it and explain to them why. Convince your friends not to watch it. Then the ratings go down, and the show goes away. But, don't send nastygrams to the FCC. I would bet every one of those complaints increases ratings by 5 percentage points.

You see, television executives go with the flow. In the beginning, TV was variety shows (Milton Berle, Red Skelton, and many, many others) and drama (Playhouse 90, to name the best). Then came the westerns, and the airwaves were flooded with them, like Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train (the first western soap opera), and Bonanza, to name a few. Some nights the schedule had nothing else. Later came the doctor and lawyer shows, then the movie nights (which saved the networks scads of dough, because there were no production costs), cop shows, and sitcoms.

The list of shows inspired by one successful program sounds like a Biblical begatting: In the beginning, Ben Casey, begat Dr. Kildare, who begat Marcus Welby...

Now, of course, we have reality shows (relatively cheap like the movie nights), and crime drama, endless crime drama. CSI this, CSI that, with a NCIS thrown in just to confuse everybody.

I almost forgot the sci-fi era, spawned by the space race. We had The Twilight Zone (arguably the best of all), Star Trek, Lost in Space, and The Outer Limits. The last brings back memories of an earlier censorship attempt.

Outer Limits had a lot of programs that had pretty impressive aliens and/or monsters, at least for the time. One of the first episodes involved a volunteer being surgically altered by the government to look like a very alien-looking alien. He would then be landed in a public area and shock the world, the idea being to get countries to back off the nuclear standoff to band together against a potential threat from outer space.

The alien, again by modern standards, wasn't all that horrifying. But the show did a great job of leading up to the moment when the monster was revealed, so there was some shock factor. According to some people, there was too much shock. Their kiddies had nightmares (like they never got them watching The Thing from Outer Space or The Blob), so such things shouldn't be shown on early hour television.

Now, we're not talking Slapout, Alabama, here. This was in Cleveland, Ohio, liberal Democratic stronghold of northern Ohio. Yet WEWS, the ABC affiliate, knuckled to the pressure, choosing to black out the moments when this week’s startling creature was revealed. The Cleveland Press, the evening paper that my Dad always favored, found this to be ludicrous. So each week, in the TV section, the paper had a still of the “Monster of the Week,” taken from the upcoming episode. It was a hoot.

Well, after a full season of “Monsters of the Week,” WEWS realized that they had been silly and, without fanfare, stopped hiding the monster. Eventually, even the episode that started it all was aired uncensored. The Press, having lost its easy target, changed to plugging the monster from the Friday night creature feature. Since this was just advertising, it didn’t have the same zing and was soon discontinued.

Perhaps our morality police need to move to an environment where news, entertainment, and even internet searches are limited by law to only what is deemed “appropriate” by the governing body. 

Do you think they’d be happy in China?

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