Nipples are so three years ago. Janet Jackson's 2004 flash at the Super Bowl reawoke the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to decency issues and left producers scouring TV footage for too droopy bathing suits. A few fines and a lot of blurred-out prime-time flesh later, the bare-breast buzz has faded from the headlines.
But don't relax yet, River City: the guardians of decency are warning about new trouble, with a capital T, which rhymes with V, which stands for violence. The Parents Television Council (PTC), the group at the vanguard of the TV-sex wars, has lately focused on prime-time blood: power-tool torture on 24, serial killing on Criminal Minds, vivisection on Heroes. And the FCC has prepared a draft report suggesting that Congress authorize it to regulate broadcast violence, as it now does obscenity, and possibly force cable companies to let subscribers opt out of paying for channels that run brutal content.
In short, torture is the new sex. Jack Bauer is the new Janet Jackson.
The Great Sexwatch of 2004--05 was an artifact of its political era--remember "values voters"? But so is the violence crusade. Democrats now control Congress, and they get as exercised about violence as conservatives do about sex. Liberal Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia threatened that if broadcasters won't police violence, "the Federal Government must step up." If you favor Washington oversight of media, gory TV is your new opportunity area.
It only fuels the antiviolence Zeitgeist that 24 has become not only a poster show for gore but also a bête noire of Iraq-war opponents, who say that it rationalizes state brutality. They seized on a New Yorker article in which Army officers complained that West Point students cited 24 as an argument for torture. (G.O.P. Senator John McCain, a 24 fan, has made the same criticism.)
Generals are asking for changes in a TV show, and war critics are on their side: How's that for a Kumbayah moment? But then, media crusading is a political bizarro world, uniting social-issue conservatives with social-engineer progressives. And the year before a presidential election, "protecting the children" has bipartisan appeal (2004 gave us Janet; 2000, Eminem; 1996, Ice-T). Both parties' 2008 fields include candidates who have advocated government steps against TV, music and video games, including Senators McCain, Hillary Clinton and Sam Brownback.
There are valid reasons to bash TV violence. The CSI series are desensitizingly gross. 24 uses torture to the point of self-parody. (The PTC counts 67 instances of it in the first five seasons.) But these shows are also long running and hugely popular. To suggest that children need federal protection from "accidentally" watching shows well known to be violent at best lets parents off the hook and at worst masks an agenda: to prevent other parents from making choices that antiviolence activists disagree with.
You can argue that there is a social cost to violence. But even assuming that one could connect violent shows with, say, violence in children, connecting any specific violent entertainment with any specific result is dubious. Legislation against prime-time violence also may be unconstitutional, but the mere threat may be enough to stifle edgy shows. And the attempt to do so establishes a chilling principle: limiting certain kinds of choice and expression in order to make people think and act better.
Certainly, many families want alternatives to violent TV. And guess what? They have them and, amazingly, can wield a remote well enough to find them. Family-friendly American Idol is the biggest show on TV. Cable, that font of gore, offers more family and documentary shows than ever were available in the three-channel era. But if politicians simply respected the audience's choices, stopped posturing against theoretical violence and fictional bad guys, they would have to focus on, say, the thornier problems of stopping actual bloodshed in the real world.
There's a term for that in the entertainment business. They call it escapism.