Archive for September 28th, 2009

Nobody is Getting Fined or Fired: A Brief History of Obscenity and Indecency

Jesse has already covered the news that Jenny Slate said “fucking” on SNL this weekend. As soon as the sketch started, Maggie and I got scared. An f-bomb seemed inevitable. And it certainly was. But don’t feel bad for anyone on this one. Nobody is getting fined or fired over this. Today I’m going to give everyone an education in the nature of dirty stuff on television in recent years.

For television networks, the first arbiter of decency is not the government. It is the advertisers who pay them to put their silly little shows on the air. If you can get a sponsor to pay for your filthy smut, you can do almost anything you want. Most advertisers, however, are a skittish bunch, and want to avoid controversy. That simple fact goes a long way towards explaining why television has a history of being extremely tame. But as advertisers have become less concerned with the naughty content in the broadcasts they sponsor, the government has stepped in more often.

As you may be aware, there is a rather popular amendment to our constitution that says “Congress shall make no law …  abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” etc. Unfortunately, over the years the Supreme Court has found exceptions to that clear and rather plainly worded bit of lawmaking. One of these exceptions grants the FCC the power to regulate over-the-air broadcast networks to prevent them from broadcasting indecent material between the hours of 6am and 10pm; what I refer to as the “Won’t Somebody Think of the Children Zone.” In a wonderful bit of irony, this policy was first solidified in 1978 after someone broadcast George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” on the radio. The Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s right to protect children by putting indecent content on late at night, which seems to indicate that someone could actually perform Carlin’s monologue on SNL if the sponsors were willing.

Since the Jenny Slate incident occurred well outside of the Zone, the FCC has no authority to fine anyone for broadcasting the potentially indecent material. According to the FCC “indecent material contains sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity. Now, saying “I fucking respect you for that” clearly does not rise to the level of obscenity (I’ll cover obscenity in a moment) but what is not immediately clear is whether using “fucking” as an intensifier actually refers to sexual material. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court offered distinctly mixed signals on this issue. In 2003, Bono (who was coincidentally featured on this weekend’s SNL) said winning a Golden Globe was “really, really fucking brilliant” during a live broadcast during the Won’t Somebody Think of the Children Zone and television stations were assessed some hefty fines for letting that through (on the East Coast of course. The West Coast never gets to hear the dirty words). The case made its way to the Supreme Court and they punted on the big issue of whether fleeting expletives of that type could be considered protected by the First Amendment. But they did rule in favor of the FCC in this particular case, which puts a bit of a cramp on live broadcasts in the Zone. Beeping out words on a seven-second broadcast delay is not as easy as people think.

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2 comments September 28th, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 1

Welcome to this TV season’s Monday Morning Quarterback series, in which I review each new episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live with the relatively unique perspective that the show isn’t a horrible embarrassment. Theoretically, SNL should be riding high off of a highly rated 34th season, in which their election-season forays into prime-time produced some of NBC’s highest-rated scripted content all year. This is most clearly visible with this fall’s return of Weekend Update Thursday, that makeshift SNL appetizer that performed so well after The Office last year.

Of course, this year it’s a little different: the Thursday editions started up more than a week before the show proper, are scheduled for six solid weeks, and, perhaps most importantly, are not happening in the middle of a hotly contested national election. This, as well as their 8PM leadoff slot away from The Office and the canceled ER, probably accounts for the Thursday editions performing at normal-or-worse NBC Thursday levels, averaging around five million viewers for their first two broadcasts – about half the audience of last year’s installments. What’s more, Lorne Michaels decided to fire two cast members, Casey Wilson and Michaela Watkins, over the summer – especially odd considering how much screen time Watkins got in her first year, with several recurring characters to call her own. Wilson’s departure is less surprising, though unfortunate, as she was funny (if underutilized). I’m far from immune to the charms of Abby Elliott, but it’s hard not to read her retention and the other ladies’ firing (and subsequent replacement with two younger women seemingly closer to the Abby Elliot mold) as a somewhat craven pandering for younger, prettier ladies.

So NBC may have been temporarily high on one of its most enduring properties, but even more secure seasons of SNL can’t escape that tumultuous, up-and-down, hot-and-cold variety show thing. For better or worse, and no matter how much they might actually want to, this show doesn’t really do victory laps. Coasting, maybe; victory laps just don’t get a chance.

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September 28th, 2009


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