The Federal Communications Commission issues broadcast licenses for the use of public airwaves on condition that those who use them do so according to community standards. In days gone by, that meant broadcasting programs where the married Petries on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" slept in separate beds and a prenatal Lucille Ball had to refer to herself as "expecting" on "I Love Lucy," lest anyone in the audience be offended by the word "pregnant."
Such accommodations may seem excessive today, but they demonstrated the FCC was willing to err on the side of caution in protecting the public, particularly children, from offensive material being streamed into their living rooms.
That is, to put it mildly, no longer the case.
The Federal Communications Commission has now proposed loosening the definition of obscenity and allowing "fleeting" instances of both profanity and nudity to appear on broadcast television. The focus instead would be on "egregious" obscenity, which, given the state of programming today, is becoming increasingly rare — not because television is more family friendly, but because the standards have been all but abandoned.
If the glut of sex, profanity and violence that currently passes for popular entertainment isn't "egregiously" obscene, then how foul does one have to be before the FCC takes notice?
Back when the Petries were entertaining America, the three broadcast networks were essentially the only way for the nation to invite moving pictures into their living rooms. Today, the Internet and cable/satellite television have increased the availability of these images a thousandfold, and there is no shortage of providers of prurient entertainment for those who choose to seek it. Why is it necessary to erode what few standards remain on the public airwaves?
Those who push for broader standards often do so as a fight against "restrictions." In reality, television without moral standards is the most restrictive of all. A large swath of the nation may choose not to watch for fear of offending their children or inviting language and behavior into their homes that otherwise would not be welcomed or allowed. When strict decency standards are applied, all audiences are served. We can't imagine many viewers reacting to a program by saying they wished it had more profanity or nudity. Those who yearn for such things certainly have no end of choices beyond the public airwaves.
Public resources should be a safe haven from the excesses that have marred the entirety of the media. Yet where once the FCC was sensitive to the possibility of giving offense, it seems now to have rejected the need to enforce any standards at all. This is a world in which graphic images increasingly bombard people from all sides. Can anyone persuasively argue that what children need is increased exposure to such things? Is our appetite for indecency so insatiable that the nation is now willing to say anything goes?
We believe society is not that far gone. If the FCC relaxes its already-loose obscenity guidelines, it would be violating the community standards the agency was created to uphold.