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CBS Breaks Its Decency Pledge

Part 2 of 2




On December 31st, 2004 -- only a few weeks after the network’s promise to avoid indecent content (and more importantly, after the FCC had forgiven their previous offenses), CBS aired a re-run of an episode of the crime drama Without A Trace. The episode included graphic scenes of a teen orgy party and aired at 9:00 p.m. Central/Mountain time. Incredibly, when the episode first ran on November 3rd, 2003, thousands of FCC complaints had been filed against it. This episode had been found indecent; yet mere weeks after promising not to show indecent programming, CBS reran it anyway.


This action reveals CBS’ “promise” for what it truly was: a cynical sham, a lying manipulation of the law, and a shameless exploitation of the good will and trust of the American public.

CBS did nothing to address its betrayal of its promise until November of 2007…when the network claimed it had “inadvertently” failed to comply with the earlier consent decree. CBS then promised (again) to comply with the original consent decree. Essentially, CBS aired the same indecent content twice, without bothering to uphold the commitment it had made to the American people. CBS first ignored broadcast-decency law when airing a teen-orgy scene in the first place, and then again when it ignored the terms of the consent decree its own attorneys negotiated to absolve itself of responsibility for the content it aired.


After getting the charges against them dropped, the network immediately turned around and began committing new offenses against indecency law…and the so-called “Tiffany Network” has continued to show the depth of the network’s hypocrisy.


Despite Les Moonves’ previously-mentioned concern with foul language, CBS had no problems featuring a music video in which several people raise their middle fingers while singing “(Bleeped f***) the feds,” during a December 30, 2007 episode of 60 Minutes. The episode aired at 7:00 p.m. Eastern/Pacific and 6:00 p.m. Central/Mountain time.


On February 17th, 2007, CBS brought the horrifically gory drama Dexter to prime-time broadcast television. Previously shown only on the premium cable network Showtime, where its viewership was largely confined to adults, CBS chose to use the public airwaves belonging to all Americans to show a program which makes a serial killer into a hero.


Though CBS promised that Dexter would be edited so as to make it appropriate for broadcast TV, this promise was adhered to as much as the network’s previous promises. Showtime Entertainment President Robert Greenblatt stated that “CBS never asked us to reduce the number of killings or to change the psychology [of Dexter]…Aside from some cosmetic changes, you’ll see virtually the same show,” (Entertainment Weekly, February 1, 2008).


Dexter introduced audiences to the depths of depravity and indifference as it chronicled the main character’s troubled quest for vigilante justice by celebrating graphic, premeditated murder. The network also refused to assign a mature audience rating of TV-MA, even though they stated that the show was aimed at mature audiences. Instead, the network rated the show as suitable for 14-year-olds. By airing Dexter , CBS exposed nearly 250% more children to the gruesome series as compared to when it aired on Showtime.(The number of children under the age of 12 watching Dexter rose from 156,000 the first week on CBS to 206,000 the second, according to Nielsen Media Research.) 


And on May 4th, CBS showed Dexter at 9:00 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific time zones, only 8:00 p.m. in Central and Mountain time zones...even though the network had previously promised (there’s that word again) that “there will be ample buffer between its mature content and the traditional Family Hour.” If airing the serial killer drama at 10:00 p.m. meant that the show was scheduled responsibly (a dubious proposition in itself), then airing it at 8:00 p.m. could only mean that the network, by its own standards, was acting irresponsibly.  But this behavior was perfectly consistent with the network’s attitudes toward promises of responsible action.


Then in June, the tarnished “Tiffany Network” premiered the raunchy Swingtown, which introduced viewers to a world of drugs and sexual experimentation with the premise of so-called “open marriage” at its core.  The first episode featured a ménage à trois, an orgy, and the characters enjoying drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and Quaaludes. Airing as early as 9:00 p.m. Central/Mountain, Swingtown ensured that children were exposed to the show’s seamy content.  Even though the show consistently lost viewers throughout its brief tenure -- by the final episode, almost 70% of Swingtown‘s audience from the first episode had deserted the program – CBS was determined to continue showing offensive content.


Even though its viewers, advertisers and ratings were dropping, CBS caught one lucky break on the legal front; the Third Circuit Court of Appeals threw out fines levied by the Federal Communications Commission against CBS and its affiliates for broadcasting the 2004 Super Bowl Janet Jackson striptease.  CBS issued a statement saying it hoped the decision "will lead the FCC to return to the policy of restrained indecency enforcement it followed for decades." By "restrained indecency enforcement," of course, CBS meant "no indecency enforcement."


Emboldened by the Third Circuit’s misguided decision, CBS – along with the other broadcast networks – filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court to defend Fox’s claim that airing the “F-word” and “S-word” during two Fox awards show broadcasts was not indecent. Going even further, the networks issued a statement on August 1st claiming that broadcasters should not be bound by any type of indecency law whatsoever.

And CBS has continued to act on its belief that, despite using the publicly-owned airwaves, the networks should not be accountable to American citizens in any way, nor should they have to follow the law. On August 5th – again making a sham of CBS President Les Moonves’ supposed concern about the harmful effects of foul language --  CBS aired another unedited “F-word” on its program Big Brother at 8:00 p.m. Central/Mountain time zones when a woman named Libra said: “Memphis was in the f***ing room!”


On the premiere episode of Survivor: Gabon September 25th, CBS indulged in another deliberate “wardrobe malfunction.” This time, a contestant’s penis was shown dangling from his pants as he ran. This episode of Survivor was promoted as the very first high-definition broadcast of Survivor – which means that the body part was far more visible than it would normally have been.


And on October 22nd, CBS struck again. Demonstrating that their desire to push explicit content into American homes is not limited to its reality shows, the network showed a three minute long strip club scene featuring a lap dance aired on the tawdry “sitcom” Two and a Half Men. The show aired at 8:00 p.m. Central/Mountain time, and was apparently CBS’ idea of perfect viewing for children. The scene featured the main character attempting to have a conversation with his nephew’s former teacher turned exotic dancer while she gives his brother a private lap dance. The woman grinds on Sheen’s brother eliciting moans and cries of “yes, yes, yes” before the scene ends.


After the 2004 Super Bowl striptease, CBS complained that they could not control such content, especially because it was "fleeting" and unpredictable. They would follow the law, the network said, if the FCC would give them clear guidelines. But once the FCC did so, the network broke its promise yet again.


The CBS strategy today is as follows: the network deliberately shows something indecent or offensive. If audience members do not complain, CBS claims that the content it showed must not be offensive. If people do complain and the FCC fines the network, however, CBS sobs that its “First Amendment rights” are being violated and takes the case to court, where the case will drag out for years. And during those years, CBS continues to show even more graphic and offensive material, so that when the old case finally comes to trial, CBS says, “See how tame it is compared with what’s on now? You can’t fine us for this!”


The most important point in all this is one that CBS never mentions: the networks do not own the broadcast airwaves. The American people do. By law, the networks are required to abide by the standards that the American people – through their elected representatives in Congress and appointed officials on the Federal Communications Commission – wish them to follow.


The networks, glutted on their billions of dollars of profit per year (made by using a public utility for free), arrogantly think that they should not have to follow the law. CBS has shown as much, having broken its own formal promises time after time after time.


It is long past time that CBS be held accountable for breaking its promises, flouting the law and violating the public trust. CBS  -- and all the broadcast networks – must be reminded that they exist not solely to make profit, but also to serve the American people.


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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