The Parents Television Council believes that too much prime-time TV is indecent. So indecent that it never misses a show. In the group's Alexandria, Va., offices, five analysts sit at desks with a VCR, a TV and a computer. They tape every hour of prime-time network TV, and a lot of cable. CSI. The Apprentice. God help them, even Reba. And they watch. Every filthy second.
This afternoon, PTC analyst Kristine Looney is sitting in her cubicle, whose bookshelf holds volumes by Ann Coulter and G. Gordon Liddy. Headphones over her ears, hand on the remote, she is watching the March 13 episode of Crossing Jordan. Suddenly, she hits the pause button. Why? "'Damn,'" she says. "And also they were talking about drugs." Looney, 25, transcribes the quote--"Damn. The second suitcase is still out there"--and it goes into the Entertainment Tracking System (ETS), the PTC's database on more than 100,000 hours of programming. "We track even those minor swears," says Looney's supervisor, Melissa Caldwell, "because it's a way of tracking trends." The ETS, in the words of PTC executive director Tim Winter, logs "every incident of sexual content, violence, profanity, disrespect for authority and other negative content." The ETS analysts don't monitor premium channels, which is just as well, because an episode of Deadwood would presumably crash the system. The ETS is thoroughly indexed by theme--"Threesome," "Masturbation," "Obscene Gesture." With it, the group can detect patterns of sleaze and curses and spotlight advertisers who buy on naughty shows. It is a meticulously compiled, cross-referenced, multimegabyte Alexandria Library of smut.
The Entertainment Tracking System--it sounds like something the Pentagon would have if we had fought a war to depose Viacom's Sumner Redstone instead of Saddam Hussein. And in a way, the ETS is the nerve center of a war: the War on Indecency. It is a war that had a shot seen round the world--Janet Jackson at the 2004 Super Bowl--but had been simmering much longer. It is a war with strange allies and enemies: it pits free-market conservatives against family-values conservatives, free-speech liberals against Big Government liberals, and a normally pro-business Congress and White House against megacorporations. (Among them is TIME's parent company, Time Warner, which owns a major cable business, the WB broadcast network and several cable channels, including HBO and TNT.) A war that has TV programmers scrambling for cover--or at least pixelation--and has led Howard Stern to decamp from his broadcast-radio shock show for a satellite-radio gig in January.