A popular argument, repeated this week by a Supreme Court justice, is that any attempt by government to regulate content on public airways is futile because modern technology provides so many other non-regulated entertainment outlets. The Federal Communications Commission may be able to protect children from smut and nudity during prime viewing hours, but children can get those in spades from many other sources 24 hours a day.
Justice Samuel Alito said broadcast TV will soon go the way of "vinyl records and 8-track tapes," rendering moot the case the court currently is considering.
Ultimately, that argument may prove true, but broadcasting in the United States remains dominated by network-produced programs. Even popular Internet streaming sites, such as Netflix and Hulu, offer primarily network shows to compliment their collection of movies. To throw up the nation's collective hands at this point and give up on trying to impose some community decency standard is to surrender to elements that are coarsening society and removing notions about what is acceptable in mixed company. Ultimately, what is acceptable entertainment becomes acceptable behavior, and time-tested reasons for restraint become lost in a deluge of filth.
The court heard arguments this week in FCC vs. Fox Television Stations, a case in which broadcasters would like justices to reverse a 1978 decision that upheld the FCC's ability to regulate content on public radio and television stations during hours when children are most likely to watch. At risk is the notion that children should be protected from vulgarities during a time of life when basic notions of morality and proper conduct are being formed. Specifically, the case concerns well-known celebrities using foul language during live shows, and an "NYPD Blue" episode that contained nudity.
The Obama administration has argued that public airways need to be a "safe haven" in which parents can feel confident letting their children watch. Unfortunately, the notion of a television "safe haven" already has become ludicrous. To get there, not only would the FCC have to fine networks for airing nudity and profanities, it would need to require a significant retrenchment concerning themes and situations.
Broadcasters argue that advertisers already keep television from becoming too racy. No business wants to be boycotted because it sponsors an objectionable show. But while it is true that some recent boycotts have led to shows being canceled, the downward trend through the years of what advertisers are safely able to sponsor is unmistakable.
The FCC certainly could do more to establish consistent rules about what it won't allow, but it should not be forced to abandon standards.
Technology may ultimately will this fight. Until then, however, the government should do all it can to protect its citizens from indecency.
A century ago, popular entertainment often contained racial stereotypes people today would find offensive and intolerable. Those reflected and reinforced common notions of the times that, for good reason, have been discredited.
But if the relationship between entertainment standards and cultural endorsement is so clear when that sort of behavior is concerned, it ought to be equally clear concerning permissive sexual conduct, nudity and profanity today.