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Pixelization makes TV 'nudity' a blurry issue

The editing technique implies actors are unclothed even if they aren't. It bothers the Parents Television Council and underscores a larger debate on standards.

August 19, 2012|By T. L. Stanley
  • Krysten Ritter is pixeled in the show "Don't turst the B---- in Apt. 23."
Krysten Ritter is pixeled in the show "Don't turst the B----… (ABC )

Howie Mandel wore black high-top shoes — and nothing else — during a remote shoot for NBC's "America's Got Talent." Krysten Ritter strolled around in the altogether, casually snacking and chatting on ABC's "Don't Trust the B— in Apartment 23." And Ashton Kutcher greeted visitors on CBS' "Two and a Half Men" in shaggy shoulder-length hair and his birthday suit.

These aren't clips from "Networks Gone Wild," but scenes from the recent broadcast season where instances of "full nudity" have skyrocketed. The trick, of course, is that the actors just appear to be naked — the censor-offending, federally banned body parts blurred beyond recognition by the wonders of modern editing.

Known as pixelization, the post-production technique, which displays a certain area of a photo or footage at a much lower resolution, came into wider use years ago largely in TV news, documentaries and reality programs. There, the practice obscured product placements, and distorted everything from a license plate number to a human face to protect privacy rights.

But now television writers are using the tactic as a sight gag and a way to attract attention, in much the same way that scripted programming commonly bleeps out censored language. The stars themselves are almost always not in their birthday suits anyway. Instead, they are outfitted with body suits or swimsuits that are later erased or covered up with special effects, according to producers and industry insiders.

In the 2010-11 television season, there was one instance of pixelized "full frontal nudity" on the major networks. This season, there were 64, according to new research by the Parents Television Council, a nonprofit Los Angeles-based media watchdog group.

Though the nudity is usually phony, this use of pixelization pokes at the standards of what is considered decent and underscores a larger debate about what should be allowed on television. Part of that conversation recently reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices struck down fines for ABC and Fox, which had aired partial nudity and swear words. The broader issue, however, of just how far networks can push the boundaries of their content was left unaddressed.

None of the networks contacted would comment on the PTC's pixelization findings, saying privately that implied nudity is a far cry from R-rated fare. The practice isn't prohibited, or even specifically addressed, in guidelines of the Federal Communications Commission, they add.

Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications at the National Assn. of Broadcasters, defended the networks' right to use the editing technique. "It appears that many if not most of the programs cited by the PTC did not involve actual nudity," Wharton said in an email after reviewing some of the PTC's examples. "Nonetheless, broadcasters are committed to empowering parents with program ratings and program-blocking technologies that allow them to screen out content that might be inappropriate for children."

Real or not, PTC President Tim Winter said that pixilated flesh is "unfortunate, unnecessary and offensive to the family audience" and that it happened more often in 7 to 9 p.m. shows, when kids could be watching, than in those airing after 10 p.m. Nor did the shows' ratings always warn parents of sensitive content.

Karen Sternheimer, a USC sociology professor writing a book on pressure groups that try to censor popular culture, said a study like the PTC's is a way to "galvanize the troops," though she sees it as a futile attempt to sway policy.

"The legal trends over at least the past 60 years have been toward protecting the 1st Amendment, so it's a losing battle," Sternheimer said. "It's a tactic, though I hesitate to call it a study in the scientific sense, and it speaks to like-minded people. But it's not likely to change content on network TV."

Indeed, networks, locked in a battle for viewers with more permissive basic and premium cable channels, have been pushing for more latitude to air edgy programming.

Pixelization looks more realistic than, say, a black bar across intimate areas, and its use has jumped drastically, according to the PTC. In the 2010-11 season, for instance, black bars covered implied nudity 87% of the time. A year later, blurring and pixelization had become the special effect of choice, 74% of the time.

"The blur gives you a different impact visually, and the person appears to be completely nude," Winter said. "That's a huge leap from where we've ever been on broadcast TV before."

During an episode of NBC's "The Office"last season, characters played by James Spader,B.J. Novak and Zach Woods stripped off their clothes and jumped into a swimming pool with co-workers at a company party. Plenty of pixelization ensued.

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