Do we really want to watch everything on tape delay?

Sunday, October 10, 2004

We used to look forward to the sports highlights on television. Now we have to look out for the sports lowlights. Just when we thought it was safe to watch TV again after Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl, a popular stock-car driver goes potty mouth before a national audience.

Last Sunday (Oct. 3) Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked by an NBC reporter how he felt after winning his fifth race at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. Noting that his late father had won 10 races at the speedway, Earnhardt said, “It don’t mean (a four-letter vulgarism) right now.”

NASCAR officials quickly fined him $10,000 and docked him 25 points, dropping him to second place in the run for the season championship. Thousands of fans called or e-mailed NASCAR officials with complaints, either about the language or the sanctions. And Earnhardt’s racing team said it would appeal the fine and penalty, arguing, as The Washington Post put it, that “an expletive uttered in euphoria doesn’t pack the same punch as one blurted out in rage.”

That apparently was a reference to the same punishment meted out by NASCAR earlier this season to racers Ron Hornaday and Johnny Sauter after they used the same barnyard epithet during radio interviews — only in an angry way.

It appears that the vast majority of stock-car racing fans were unperturbed by Earnhardt’s verbal enthusiasm, or as Earnhardt said later, “If anybody was offended by the four-letter word I said … I can’t imagine why they would have tuned in to the race in the first place.”

The matter might have ended there, except that a smattering of complaints found their way to the Federal Communications Commission, which had just levied a record fine of $550,000 against 20 CBS-owned television stations for the Super Bowl incident. Now it’s up to the FCC, under intense pressure to prove its regulatory resolve, to decide whether to punish NBC for Earnhardt’s language lapse.

These days, a rough word or reference, or anything else that gives offense on radio or television, is unlikely to fade into the broadcast ether, whether uttered in anger or exuberance. Instead, it will be bandied about for months on end as official and nonofficial parties determine how to punish the infraction.

There are plenty of recent examples of just how much broadcast offense is on the national mind:

  • A couple of weeks ago, the Kaiser Family Foundation released survey results showing that 63% of parents favor limits on sex and violence in TV shows during the early evening hours and 52% would like to see regulation extended to cable stations.
  • At a hearing of the Senate Science, Technology and Space subcommittee on Sept. 28, the different content-rating systems used by the motion-picture and television industries came under blistering attack.
  • The same week, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., introduced legislation to study the effect of electronic media on children.
  • Several newspapers dropped the “Boondocks” comic strip by artist Aaron McGruder or ran expurgated versions of the strip for several days to avoid offending some readers.

In this environment, broadcasters are scrambling to avoid more regulation and stiff fines by sanitizing the airwaves of every utterance or image that might offend someone somewhere sometime. On-air talent and others are told to mind their manners, or else. Shows are scrubbed clean of anything resembling questionable material.

Controversial shock jock Howard Stern, ranked No. 1 in many of the 46 major markets where his show airs, has tired of trying to deal with it. For years, he has been hounded by huge fines from the FCC for too much on-air raunchiness. On Oct. 6 Stern announced that he would move from broadcast radio to satellite radio, where he can speak more freely.

Meanwhile, the networks are putting more “live” programming on tape delay, as NBC has now announced it will do with NASCAR broadcasts and ABC is doing with Monday Night Football. Imagine how different the TV sports experience may become compared to the stadium or track experience if this practice becomes pervasive. Interpreting constitutionally shaky regulations about what’s decent and what’s not could require hundreds of billable hours for a gaggle of lawyers. But in the tape-delay process, a nervous network functionary with his finger poised above the delete button has only seconds. Inevitably, the response will be, “When in doubt, bleep it out.”

Our yearning for a more decent world, free of the coarse, the crude and the vulgar, is understandable. But the best of intentions by broadcasters and the worst of suppression by regulators can’t sanitize the world outside television and radio. We still won’t be able to shield our children or ourselves from life itself, where we must be prepared to encounter an occasional offense to our sensibilities on the streets, in the schools, even in the solemn corridors of Congress.

Given that reality, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to prepare ourselves for the inevitable and to teach our children how to deal with such offense when it occurs? That might have the added benefit of keeping our children from growing up to talk like entertainment celebrities, sports heroes and the occasional world leader.

More important, it would be time better spent than parsing the difference between a flash dance and trash talk on TV. And it certainly makes more sense than fantasizing about a tape delay on life.

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