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Saddest Ghost Lamp

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The FCC: Your Arbiter of Narrative Necessity

So here are the scariest words you're likely to read in a while: "The explicit and lengthy nature of the depictions of sexual activity, including apparent intercourse, goes well beyond what the story line could reasonably be said to require."

That's from the FCC's indecency complaint (pdf) against CBS for a teenage orgy scene in an episode of "Without a Trace" broadcast on New Year's Eve 2004. The proposed fine: A total of $3.6 million, distributed among all the stations that aired the episode. It's scary because the commission made its determination about what the "story line could reasonably be said to require" in the course of deciding whether or not that broadcast "pander[ed] to, titillate[d], or shock[ed] the audience," a condition that FCC regulations require if a broadcast is to be found indecent. In other words, one of the rationales that the FCC relied on in deciding to punish the stations that aired the episode is that the scene wasn't narratively necessary.

I know it ain't art, but it's ludicrous beyond reason that the FCC has taken it upon itself to decide what "Without a Trace" storylines do and do not require. There may be perfectly legitimate reasons to find the scene in question indecent (I haven't seen it, but I'm skeptical having read the complaint). But for millions of dollars in fines to hinge on what a bunch of political hacks think the storyline required is batshit insane.

Also batshit insane: As noted, the complaint was generated by a December 31, 2004 broadcast of the episode, called "Our Sons and Daughters." But as this "Without a Trace" episode guide shows, that episode first aired--apparently without complaint, and certainly without FCC action--on November 3, 2003. Three months before the Super Bowl of Shame. CBS got busted for a rerun. As the president might say, Janet Jackson changed everything.