overthinking the idiot box

March 27, 2006

Feature
You Bet Your Sweet Aspercreme

How Janet Jackson's Boob Ruined Everything
by Jill Weinberger

I am an inveterate TV-tuner-outer. I work at home, and every morning, I turn the TV on and proceed to ignore it. I start out carefully selecting something like an old Gilmore Girls, but then I get to working, and before I know it, I'm halfway through Step-by-Step — and I realize it's now been seven times that I've watched the same Gilmore episode without paying enough attention to figure out why the hell Jess left town.

Therefore, it's noteworthy that the one thing in all of daytime television that managed to penetrate my consciousness was an Aspercreme commercial. See, for a while last year, Aspercreme had this jingle — "You bet your sweet Aspercreme." And they still have the jingle — only suddenly, it's "You bet, if it's Aspercreme." Now, I must admit, I didn't find the original all that witty, but this new thing is just... lame. So I get Googlin' to see what the story is, and nobody seems to know anything about it. In all of Cyberland, there is not a single corporate comment explaining the change. All I found was 110 pages of people forlornly wondering where their beloved, slightly risque play on words is. It's kind of spooky.

And then, I saw Seth MacFarlane on Dinner for Five, talking about how, fearing fines from the FCC for inappropriate content, Fox has started editing old episodes of Family Guy before they re-air. Things that aired without question four years ago are now considered questionable, and now, whenever cartoon characters pull down their pants, we are subjected to tiny, pixelated animated butt cracks.

It's weird: on the one hand, I find it difficult to make the argument that network TV is getting tamer. Hell, there's not a night of the week that you can't turn on the TV to find some stone-faced investigative semi-hottie flinging around the bad puns as he or she cracks the case of the guy who got stabbed in the eye with a fondue fork by a serial killer who preys on degenerates who like to screw underage imported Russian hookers while riding a genitally-mutilated Clydesdale.

Hey, that's not bad. (A small pause while I run off to jot down this idea for my new script, CSI: What the Fuck, Man?)

Anyway. As I was saying, in one corner, you've got the networks in a constant competition for, "Let's see who can be the edgiest edgester to ever edge an edge." But in the other, you've got Aspercreme quietly caving to who-knows-whom, and Fox blurring cartoon butts. What gives?

We want to watch the creepiest, sickest bastards do the creepiest, sickest things imaginable, and then we want to watch a cop or a scientist use reason and righteousness to catch 'em.
The first one's easy. It's scary out here. Most of us have little to no control over the stuff that scares us the most. We want to watch the creepiest, sickest bastards do the creepiest, sickest things imaginable, and then we want to watch a cop or a scientist use reason and righteousness to catch 'em. In that world, no matter how bad things get, no matter what's out there, the rules work. Plus, there's that sick thrill thing.

The second phenomenon is also easily explained. It's because of Janet Jackson's boob.

Lemme s'plain.

As we know, way back in 2004, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake did a little number at the Super Bowl, and at the end of it, Justin ripped Janet's shirt off and exposed her star-spangled boob to the audience. In the flurry of denials, excuses, and bedwetting that followed, we heard many explanations of who knew what when — and two years later, we still don't know the truth. We do know this: America, as a whole, had a conniption.

And rightly so, really. Personally, as the only daughter of two sport-phobic, musical-theatre-loving bookworms, I was about as likely to be exposed to the Super Bowl as I was to be taken to the dump to shoot rats for the afternoon. However, most Americans apparently love to watch sports with their kids, and the Super Bowl, for many, is one of the family highlights for the year. And boobs are not part of that equation. (Except maybe in beer commercials. I don't know. I'm neither a parent nor a football fan, so I'm not clear on the sliding scale of appropriateness.)

The point is, there was a big ol' boob smack dab in the middle of a lot of family rooms without warning, and many people were legitimately outraged and made very angry complaints. The FCC fined CBS $550, 000. A drop in the bucket for them, right? Only it was more than a fine; it was a sign — that if enough people created enough of a ruckus, networks could end up being held responsible for their content. And then two things happened: Everybody realized that, well-organized, a small group of people could conceivably create big problems for network television. And, somewhere in Burbank, a bunch of TV executives said, "Oh, shit."

Because the day of the watchdog group had come.

Let's discuss the FCC for a minute. Yes, the FCC is comprised entirely of presidential appointees. And yes, it has a 3-2 Republican majority. Which is probably a cause for concern when it comes to their regulation of media conglomerates, but when it comes to television content, they usually stick to a fairly reasonable set of guidelines. Simply put, the FCC reviews any network programming that has aired between 6am and 10pm about which it has received complaints. They are not running around putting a magnifying glass over everything and fining the Disney Channel because they think Rolie Polie Olie sounds dirty. Until last week, their only recent big sanctions were for a) the aforementioned Boob of Jackson, and b) an episode of Married by America with a guy on all fours in his underwear being spanked by topless strippers. (Damn boobs again.) The fact is, without a complaint, the FCC has almost no idea what's on a particular program. The question then, of course, becomes: who is lodging the complaints?

Estimates of what percentage of FCC complaints come from the PTC website range from 20-99 percent, with the fairest guess hovering at around just over half. This means that, while there are about 240 million adults in this country, just under a million of them may well have more power than the other 239 million put together.
Answer: The Parents Television Council. While they've been around since 1995, the PTC really took off in 2002. That's when they set up a system by which anyone can use their website to lodge a complaint with the FCC. You don't even have to have seen the program in question. If it's one of the PTC's "Action Alerts," the letter's already written for you, complete with graphic details about the offensive content. Just put in your name and click away. Estimates of what percentage of FCC complaints come from the PTC website range from 20-99 percent, with the fairest guess hovering at around just over half. This means that, while there are about 240 million adults in this country, just under a million of them may well have more power than the other 239 million put together.

But wait, now, because the PTC actually has several good points. The supposed "family hour" of prime time really has almost no programs that a parent could watch with their children. (There's even less if you're a parent with no intention of watching Extreme Home Makeover or Ghost Whisperer, two programs which the PTC heartily endorses, but which I think you should only have to watch if you've been very, very bad.) Yes, there is a TV ratings system, and yes, there is the V-chip, but it turns out that networks are responsible for rating their own content. So, once MTV bleeps the "u" and the "c" out of "fuck," they feels that the remaining "fk" is not offensive language, and the show doesn't get a language rating. (Cause once you bleep, fck is super kid-friendly.) PTC also wants cable companies to offer "a la carte" pricing, so that parents can pick which basic expanded cable channels they get and pay for — not a bad idea in the world of syndication, where old episodes of NYPD Blue and Law & Order: SVU (shows that originally ran in the FCC-unregulated post-10pm slot) now rerun in the afternoon or early evening.

Oh, and thanks to Levitra commercials, parents are tired of having to explain to their kids what erections are.

But here's my thing: If the PTC is so concerned about the V Chip's inadequacy, why does their website have virtually no information about how parents can use their cable company's parental controls to limit their child's viewing by channel, by time, even — in the case of virtually all digital cable systems — by specific program title? Why do they not mention that you can lock a channel via your cable remote in about 45 seconds as you leave the house in the morning and unlock it just as quickly any time you want? And why is it that you can click from not one, but two different places on the PTC home page to get to their campaign to harangue the sponsors of Nip/Tuck, a post-10pm, basic cable, FCC-exempt program — but you have to go through three screens before you get a teeny-tiny pop-up mentioning that the American Medical Association recommends that children not have TVs in their bedrooms, that their viewing be limited to two hours a day, and that parents watch TV with their children so that they are there to explain what's being shown?

(Sample text for educating your child while watching The Real World: "See? When you drink too much, you make bad choices and engage in risky sexual behavior. That's why on pretend TV, people who do that look like Meredith Grey and get to be doctors, but in real life, people who do that look like Trishelle and have to do stupid stunts on MTV for the rest of their adult lives — that is, until they stop looking good in a bikini and have to go on welfare." Now, that's educational!)

And, oh, look — last week, the FCC fined CBS on the basis of PTC complaints about an episode of Without a Trace, because it aired at 9pm in some time zones. Well, so does every other show that airs at 10pm for the rest of us, which means that there is now effectively no adult hour in prime time. (Never mind that, according to parenting sites linked to from PTC's own site, school-age kids need well upwards of 10 hours of sleep a night and at least half an hour of TV-free "quiet time" before bed, which would put 'em safely out harm's way well in advance of whatever depravities flood Mountain and Central living rooms at 9pm.)

Turns out, the "bipartisan" PTC is an offshoot of the Media Research Center, an organization devoted to giving conservatism a voice in the media. The president of BOTH the PTC and the MRC is L. Brent Bozell, who also happens to be President of the Conservative Communications Center and executive director of the Conservative Victory Committee. More simply put: "bipartisan," my ass. And it's starting to seem to me like the PTC wants to use fear of FCC retribution to police what we're ALL watching.

If you're going to claim to be about one thing, and only one thing, without agenda, then BE without agenda. Don't use the protection of children as your umbrella while you try to clean up television for grown-ups, too. Keep adult content away from kids, yes, but don't try to keep it away from ME by spreading hysteria about these millions of imaginary children who are somehow watching television all alone at 9 or 10 at night, stumbling again and again onto programming that any parent with a brain halfway in their skull would know was inappropriate — even without the PTC to tell them so. In other words, Parents Television Council, I don't care how many kids saw Janet Jackson's boob; lay off my Nip/Tuck.

And bring back the old Apercreme commercial. This one sucks.

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