November 28, 2004
The Great Indecency Hoax
H, the poor, suffering little children.
If we are to believe the outcry of the past two weeks, America's youth have been defiled en masse - again. This time the dirty deed was done by the actress Nicollette Sheridan, who dropped her towel in the cheesy promotional spot for the runaway hit "Desperate Housewives" that kicked off "Monday Night Football" on ABC. "I wonder if Walt Disney would be proud," said Michael Powell, the Federal Communications Commission chairman who increasingly fashions himself a commissar of all things cultural, from nipple rings to "Son of Flubber."
It's beginning to look a lot like "Groundhog Day." Ever since 22 percent of the country's voters said on Nov. 2 that they cared most about "moral values," opportunistic ayatollahs on the right have been working overtime to inflate this nonmandate into a landslide by ginning up cultural controversies that might induce censorship by a compliant F.C.C. and, failing that, self-censorship by TV networks. Seizing on a single overhyped poll result, they exaggerate their clout, hoping to grab power over the culture.
The mainstream press, itself in love with the "moral values" story line and traumatized by the visual exaggerations of the red-blue map, is too cowed to challenge the likes of the American Family Association. So are politicians of both parties. It took a British publication, The Economist, to point out that the percentage of American voters citing moral and ethical values as their prime concern is actually down from 2000 (35 percent) and 1996 (40 percent).
To see how the hucksters of the right work their scam, there could be no more illustrative example than the "Monday Night Football" episode in which Ms. Sheridan leaped into the arms of the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in order to give the declining weekly game (viewership is down 3 percent from 2003) a shot of Viagra. From the get-go, it was a manufactured scandal, as over-the-top as a dinner theater production of "The Crucible."
Rush Limbaugh, taking a break from the legal deliberations of his drug rap and third divorce, set the hysterical tone. "I was stunned!" he told his listeners. "I literally could not believe what I had seen. ... At various places on the Net you can see the video of this, and she's buck naked, folks. I mean when they dropped the towel she's naked. You see enough of her back and rear end to know that she was naked. There's no frontal nudity in the thing, but I mean you don't need that. ...I mean, there are some guys with their kids that sit down to watch 'Monday Night Football.' "
Yes, there are - some, anyway - but you wonder how many of them were as upset as Mr. Limbaugh, whose imagination led him to mistake a lower back for a rear end. (He also said that the Sheridan-Owens encounter reminded him of the Kobe Bryant case; let's not even go there.) The evidence suggests that Mr. Limbaugh's prurient mind is the exception, not the rule. Though seen nationwide, and as early as 6 p.m. on the West Coast, the spot initially caused so little stir that the next morning only two newspapers in the country, both in Philadelphia, reported on it. ABC's switchboards were not swamped by shocked viewers on Monday night. A spokesman for ABC Sports told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he hadn't received a single phone call or e-mail in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast.
Even the stunned Mr. Limbaugh, curiously enough, didn't get around to mounting his own diatribe until Wednesday. Mr. Owens's agent, David Joseph, says that the flood of complaints at his office and Mr. Owens's Web site also didn't start until more than 24 hours after the incident - late Tuesday and early Wednesday. Were any of these complainants actual victims (or even viewers) of "Monday Night Football" or were they just a mob assembled after the fact by "family" groups, emboldened by their triumph in smiting "Saving Private Ryan" from 66 ABC stations the week before? Though the F.C.C. said on Wednesday that it had received 50,000 complaints about the N.F.L. affair, it couldn't determine how many of them were duplicates - the kind generated by e-mail campaigns run by political organizations posting form letters ready to be clicked into cyberspace ad infinitum by anyone who has an index finger and two seconds of idle time.
Like the Janet Jackson video before it, the new N.F.L. sex tape was now being rebroadcast around the clock so we could revel incessantly in the shock of it all. "People were so outraged they had to see it 10 times," joked Aaron Brown of CNN, which was no slacker in filling that need in the marketplace. And yet when I spoke to an F.C.C. enforcement spokesman after more than two days of such replays, the agency had not yet received a single complaint about the spot's constant recycling on other TV shows, among them the highly rated talk show "The View," where Ms. Sheridan's bare back had been merrily paraded at the child-friendly hour of 11 a.m.
The hypocrisy embedded in this tale is becoming a national running gag. As in the Super Bowl brouhaha, in which the N.F.L. maintained it had no idea that MTV might produce a racy halftime show, the league has denied any prior inkling of the salaciousness on tap this time - even though the spot featured the actress playing the sluttiest character in prime time's most libidinous series and was shot with the full permission of one of the league's teams in its own locker room. Again as in the Jackson case, we are also asked to believe that pro football is what Pat Buchanan calls "the family entertainment, the family sports show" rather than what it actually is: a Boschian jamboree of bumping-and-grinding cheerleaders, erectile-dysfunction pageantry and, as Don Imus puts it, "wife-beating drug addicts slamming the hell out of each other" on the field.
But there's another, more insidious game being played as well. The F.C.C. and the family values crusaders alike are cooking their numbers. The first empirical evidence was provided this month by Jeff Jarvis, a former TV Guide critic turned blogger. He had the ingenious idea of filing a Freedom of Information Act request to see the actual viewer complaints that drove the F.C.C. to threaten Fox and its affiliates with the largest indecency fine to date - $1.2 million for the sins of a now-defunct reality program called "Married by America." Though the F.C.C. had cited 159 public complaints in its legal case against Fox, the documents obtained by Mr. Jarvis showed that there were actually only 90 complaints, written by 23 individuals. Of those 23, all but 2 were identical repetitions of a form letter posted by the Parents Television Council. In other words, the total of actual, discrete complaints about "Married by America" was 3.
Such letter-writing factories as the American Family Association's OneMillionMoms.com also exaggerate their clout in intimidating advertisers. They brag, for instance, that the retail chain Lowe's dropped its commercials on "Desperate Housewives" in response to their protests. But Lowe's was not an advertiser on the show; the advertiser who actually bought the commercial was Whirlpool, which plugged Lowe's as a retail outlet for its products under a co-branding arrangement. Another advertiser that the family-values mafia takes credit for chasing away, Tyson Foods, had only bought in for one episode of "Desperate Housewives" in the first place. It had long since been replaced by such Fortune 500 advertisers as Ford and McDonald's, each clamoring to pay three times as much for a 30-second spot ($450,000) as those early advertisers who bought time before the show had its debut and became an instant smash.
But perhaps the most revealing barometer of the real state of play in American culture in 2004 is "Desperate Housewives" itself. Conceived by Marc Cherry, who is described by Newsweek as a "somewhat conservative, gay Republican," it is a campy, well-made soap opera presenting suburban American family life as a fugue of dysfunction, malice and sex. It's not for nothing that its characters are seen running off to Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder retrospectives or that some of the episodes are named after Stephen Sondheim songs like "Who's That Woman?" and "Pretty Little Picture."
The children of Mr. Cherry's Wisteria Lane can be as poisonous as that small-town brat in Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt": one preadolescent girl is an extortionist and one teenage daughter all but pimps for her divorced mother. The career-driven husbands are as soulless as the office rats of Wilder's "Apartment," and their wives are, yes, as desperate as those in the Manhattan high-rises of Sondheim's "Company." Whatever else is to be said about "Desperate Housewives" - and I haven't missed an episode - it is not to be confused with the kind of entertainment that the Traditional Values Coalition wants to impose on the airwaves. It not only emulates HBO Sunday night hits like "Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under" in its cheeky, sardonic tone but brushes right up against them in language and action.
In one recent show the most oversexed character on screen, a 17-year-old jock having an affair with a married woman, is revealed to be a member of his high school's "abstinence club." (Surely it was a coincidence that this revelation butted right up against a commercial for Ortho Tri-Cyclen, a prescription contraceptive.) In another, a wife collapsing under the burden of stay-at-home motherhood slugs her spouse when he contemplates not using a condom. Then there was the dinner party where another of the wives tries to humiliate her husband by telling the assembled that he "cries after he ejaculates."
"Desperate Housewives" is hardly a blue-state phenomenon. A hit everywhere, it is even a bigger hit in Oklahoma City than it is in Los Angeles, bigger in Kansas City than it is in New York. All those public moralists who wail about all the kids watching Ms. Sheridan on "Monday Night Football" would probably have apoplexy if they actually watched what Ms. Sheridan was up to in her own series - and then looked closely at its Nielsen numbers. Though children ages 2 to 11 make up a small percentage of the audience of either show, there are actually more in that age group tuning into Mr. Cherry's marital brawls (870,000) than into the N.F.L.'s fisticuffs (540,000). "Desperate Housewives" also ranks No. 5 among all prime-time shows for ages 12-17. ("Monday Night Football" is No. 18.) This may explain in part why its current advertisers include products like Fisher-Price toys, the DVD of "Elf" and the forthcoming Tim Allen holiday vehicle, "Christmas With the Kranks."
Those who cherish the First Amendment can only hope that the Traditional Values Coalition, OneMillionMoms.com, OneMillionDads .com and all the rest send every e-mail they can to the F.C.C. demanding punitive action against the stations that broadcast "Desperate Housewives." A "moral values" crusade that stands between a TV show this popular and its audience will quickly learn the limits of its power in a country where entertainment is god.