For ‘Indecency’ Watchdogs, Work Is a Day Full of TV
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.
A few cubicles away, another analyst, Lucia Alzaga, 28, monitors Telemundo and Univision for an increasingly concerned Latino membership. A research assistant, Liz Cramer, 25, is making the rounds setting up VCRs for overnight taping and sending out taped programs to groups that request them -- including the FCC.
Self-possessed and modest in earphones and a yellow sweater set, Eichenberg is cataloging the contents of the previous evening’s episode of “NYPD Blue,” entering the information into the council’s computerized entertainment tracking system. A monitor, VCR, keyboard and reference materials lie within reach.
Part of her job is to classify instances of murder, sexual liaisons and racy dialogue in broad categories like “sex” or “violence,” then cross-reference them in dozens of explicitly detailed subcategories.
She watches scenes of the crime and the detectives interviewing a suspect. She types, rewinds, types.
“Topic: Language. 1. Piss.... Topic: Violence. 1. Suicide. 2. Murder.... Topic: Political. 1. Abortion.
“Analysis: Carla’s dead body is lying on the ground....”
Eichenberg grew up on television in Ridgecrest, Calif., and was concerned by much of what she saw. A Catholic, she attended Santa Clara University and is a registered Republican.
Two years ago, she heard about the Parents Television Council from her mother, looked it up online and immediately applied for the position, which pays about $27,000 a year.
Until recently, it’s been pretty much a thankless job. In pre-Janet Jackson days, congressional staffers in Washington say, the council was the only advocacy group monitoring the FCC, which enforces decency standards in response to complaints from the public. Its representatives lobbied lawmakers regularly, urging the return of a family hour and stricter definitions of indecency.
But since the Super Bowl, the organization has taken to calling itself “the nation’s most influential advocacy organization protecting children against sex, violence and profanity in entertainment.”
Founder and president Brent Bozell is known in conservative circles as a feisty commentator and founder of the right-leaning Media Research Center. The nephew of William F. Buckley Jr., Bozell is also the executive director of a political action committee that funds conservative candidates.
Bozell says the crude sexuality of the halftime show and the commercials that surrounded it were nothing new. “What was shocking about it was, for the first time all of America saw what we were talking about.”
Bozell formed the council nine years ago; he tightened his focus two years ago on the FCC, calling it a “toothless lion.” While analysts from the council and the Media Research Center occupy separate ends of the same office floor, Bozell says the council is strictly nonpartisan. “The rule of thumb would be: We would work with anyone we could find common ground with as long as everybody agreed to check his political guns at the door,” he says.
“This is about culture; it’s not about politics.”
Bozell calls himself “staunchly pro-life, staunchly against gay rights,” and while the religious right is naturally allied, so, he says, are some socially conservative Democrats.
As evidence of its bipartisan support, the council often cites the late Steve Allen, who served as honorary chairman emeritus of its advisory board, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a member of that board until his nomination in 2000 for vice president.
To solidify their arguments, Bozell says, members rely on the entertainment tracking system, which eats up more than $1 million of the group’s annual $5-million operating budget. Bozell’s 2002 salary was $151,513, according to the group’s tax filing.
Eichenberg’s data are used partly in reports and e-mail alerts to members and partly for labeling shows and their contents red, yellow or green for the benefit of parents who use the family viewing guide on the council’s website.
The website explains the group’s methods and criteria, and it contains instructions on how to e-mail the FCC or where to testify at regional hearings.
To guide analysis of shows’ contents, the group has prepared a one-page reference matrix with criteria for rating language, sex and violence.
On the list for offensive language, for instance, eight words fall in the “red” unsuitable zone, 11 in the “yellow” warning zone and just three in the “green” safe zone. The council assumes all swear words are offensive, some more so than others, and some more troubling within certain communities. The quantity intensifies the effect, they say: If the mild “green” words (“crap,” “hell” and “damn”) occur more than five times in a half hour, their status is bumped up to “yellow.”
“ ‘NYPD Blue’ definitely has red-light language,” Eichenberg says, giving a few examples. “Excuse me for swearing,” she adds sheepishly.
Over the two years she’s been at her job, Eichenberg says the sheer number of overtly sexual situations has declined, yet the ones that remain are more graphic, amid a general coarsening of subject matter and language.
Lately, it has been hard for the system to keep pace with what the networks put out. New subtopics have to be added all the time to classify racier and raunchier programming, says director of research Melissa Caldwell: “We now have references to pornography, kinky practices, references to oral sex, certain double entendres for male erections.”
At the same time, instances of sexual innuendo have increased dramatically in prime time, Eichenberg says, requiring her to make more judgment calls. How should she classify the word “threesome,” for instance? The disrespectful way kids talk about their parents’ sex lives? What about the homicide victim in an animal costume who, as it turned out, belonged to a club for fur fetishists?
Mobilizing Its Members
Victory in a culture war requires large numbers, Bozell says. Since the Super Bowl, the council has launched six new chapters and reports gaining about 200,000 members, bringing its total close to 1 million. No dues are required for membership, although there are fees for its newsletter and members are contacted with fundraising requests.
Though some chapters may consist of only two dedicated members, he says he believes the group represents the majority of mainstream America, based on surveys that indicate most people think there is too much sex and violence on television.
“I think there was a feeling among the public that it was powerless to do anything up until recently, that no one was paying attention to their complaints,” Bozell said. “Where the FCC was concerned, it was true. No one was. We let the FCC know we were going to make a national issue of their irresponsible behavior.”
Bozell says his role is to alert the public. “I don’t make the public write things.”
The FCC isn’t the group’s only target. Bozell says the research information also mobilizes members to let “Congress, advertisers and the networks themselves know how they feel.”
Bozell has been forced at least once to concede that his information can be wrong. In 2002, the council settled a $3.5-million lawsuit with World Wrestling Entertainment regarding statements linking the deaths of four children to the “WWE Smackdown!” television program. Bozell issued a personal letter of apology.
As the organization has grown more influential, its methods have been criticized as unscientific by some in the media research community.
The council’s data don’t meet academic standards, says Dale Kunkel, a UC Santa Barbara communications professor, who conducted the largest study so far on media violence. Multiple coders are required in an academic setting to double-check one another’s judgments, he says. And strict definitions are crucial.
“We try to provide as much context as we can. At the same time, we’re trying to make our definitions and terms as concrete as we can,” Caldwell responds. Nudity, for instance, is “anything that would normally be covered on a beach,” she says.
Among the analysts, occupational hazards are part of the job. They say the work both sensitizes and desensitizes them to swearing and extreme human behavior.
“If we are watching something outside of here, and they say a curse word, we automatically are like, ‘I’ve got to log that,’ ” Eichenberg says. On the other hand, after two years, Eichenberg says she is rarely shocked. Occasionally, though, “there will be something, and you’re like, omigosh.”