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For 'Indecency' Watchdogs, Work Is a Day Full of TV

The Parents Television Council monitors shows and uses its data to put pressure on the FCC.

May 10, 2004|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Across the Potomac from Capitol Hill, on the second floor of a red brick-and-glass building, Caroline Eichenberg toils away in her homey cubicle, watching television. Monday through Friday, 7 1/2 hours a day, she keeps tabs on dramas, sitcoms and reality shows.

It would be a slacker's dream job in any other workplace. Here at the Parents Television Council, though, it's called intelligence gathering. In the battle for America's airwaves, Eichenberg and her fellow analysts deliver the data to wage an increasingly effective, and controversial, assault on prime-time "indecency."

The half a dozen analysts are all college graduates, usually between 22 and 30 and unmarried, like Eichenberg. Many of them are Christians and hold ideals of making a difference. They've grown up with TV and, despite a mix of political affiliations, have adopted the council's mission: "To restore a sense of responsibility and decency to the entertainment industry."

Though their group is officially nonpartisan, they share an open work space with researchers for the Media Research Center, a partisan organization that alleges a liberal political slant in the national press.

The television council analysts' work drives torrents of testimony, reports and e-mails that have clearly grabbed the attention of broadcasters, advertisers, members of Congress and government regulators at the Federal Communications Commission. The group claimed its first big victory in March when the FCC responded to its persistent lobbying and ruled that a vulgarity casually uttered by U2's Bono during the 2003 Golden Globe Awards violated indecency and profanity prohibitions.

That came on the heels of Janet Jackson's breast-baring Super Bowl halftime dance; by the organization's own estimate, a quarter of the 530,828 complaints that poured in afterward came from its members or those informed of the performance by the group's e-mail alert. While many broadcasters now delay live shows or pursue a course of self-censorship, Congress is poised to adopt huge new fines and regulations that might extend even into cable.

Troubled by the crackdown, some say the Parents Television Council is creating a skewed and unduly conservative impression of the public's taste in television. Others say its statistics, gathered here and later posted online, should be viewed with skepticism, as its methodology does not meet academic standards.

"They are, in a large way, setting the agenda at the FCC," says Robert Corn-Revere, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who is working to undo the council's victory regarding the Bono decision. Corn-Revere represents a coalition of broadcasters and free-speech activists -- including the American Civil Liberties Union and Viacom, which owns CBS -- that is challenging the ruling on 1st Amendment grounds.

He suggests that the council, rather than representing most Americans, as it claims, actually churns out complaints that represent its own socially conservative agenda.

As an example, he points to figures from the FCC: In 2000, commissioners received 111 complaints about 101 shows. Last year, they fielded 240,350 complaints, most of them about only nine programs, all of which were targeted on the group's website. (Sample wording: "Flood the FCC with thousands of indecency complaints." "Your urgent action is needed!" "Buffy the Vampire Slayer Mocks Christian Faith During Holy Week.")

FCC Chairman Michael Powell clearly had the organization in mind recently when he told members of the National Assn. of Broadcasters in Las Vegas that he can't help but respond to those who "spam" him with complaints. "You get an advocacy group that purports to speak for a huge audience and they will have the members write you and the members have heard what that association tells them is the problem.... There's a tendency in our system to focus on the part making all the noise."

A Focus on Networks

The second floor of the Parents Television Council is light, airy and quiet, except for the intermittent tap-tap of fingers on keyboards coming from the cubicles that run through the center of the room and alongside the northern windows.

At the moment, it is lunchtime and some workers, like Eichenberg, are eating at their desks.

Each analyst is assigned a network to monitor. The group has focused on networks because they are regulated more strictly than cable and thus are more susceptible to pressure.

Analysts, however, also monitor edgy cable shows like "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" because they know the networks likely will also push the envelope. And while cable content is hard to attack directly, a new front has lately opened up regarding subscriptions. Along with others, the council is targeting cable companies' practice of charging for a package that includes some channels parents might find objectionable.

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