of censorship derive from Roman practice in which two officials
were appointed by the government to conduct the census, award public
contracts and supervise the manners and morals of the people. Today
the scope of censorship has been expanded to include most media
and involves suppressing any or all parts deemed objectionable on
moral, political, military and other grounds.
regard to television in the United States, censorship usually refers
to the exclusion of certain topics, social groups or language from
the content of broadcast programming. While censorship has often
been constructed against the explicit backdrop of morality, it has
been implicitly based on assumptions about the identity and composition
of the audience for American broadcast television at particular
points in time. Different conceptions of the audience held by broadcasters
have been motivated by the economic drive to maximize network profits.
At times, the television audience has been constructed as an undifferentiated
other periods, the audience has been divided into demographically
desirable categories. As the definition of the audience has changed
over time, so has the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate
content. At times, different sets of moral values have often come
into conflict with each other and with the economic forces of American
broadcasting. The moral limits on content stem from what might be
viewed as the social and cultural taboos of specific social groups,
particularly concerning religious and sexual topics.
the 1950s and 1960s, the networks and advertisers measured the viewing
audience as an undifferentiated mass. Despite the lumping together
of all viewers, broadcasters structured programming content around
the "normal," dominant, values of white, middle-class Americans.
Therefore, content centered around the concerns of the nuclear family.
Topics such as racism or sexuality which had little direct impact
on this domestic setting were excluded from content. Indeed, ethnic
minorities were excluded, for the most part, from the television
screen because they did not fit into the networks' assumptions about
the viewing audience. Sexuality was a topic allocated to the private,
personal sphere rather than the public arena of network broadcasting.
For example, the sexual relationship between Rob and Laura Petrie
in The Dick Van Dyke Show during the mid-1960s could only
be implied. When the couple's bedroom was shown, twin beds diffused
any explicit connotation that they had a physical relationship.
Direct references to non-normative heterosexuality were excluded
from programming altogether. In addition, coarse language which
described bodily functions and sexual activity or profaned sacred
words were excluded from broadcast discourse.
conceptions about the viewing audience and the limits of censorship
changed drastically during the early 1970s. To a large degree, this
shift in censorship came about because techniques for measuring
the viewing audience became much more refined at that time. Ratings
researchers began to break down the viewing audience for individual
programs according to specific demographic characteristics, including
age, ethnicity, education and economic background. In this context,
the baby boomer generation--younger, better educated, with more
disposable income--became the desired target audience for television
programming and advertising. Even though baby boomers grew up on
television programming of the 1950s and 1960s, their tastes and
values were often in marked contrast to that of their middle-class
parents. Subjects previously excluded from television began to appear
with regularity. All in the Family was the predominant battering
ram that broke down the restrictions placed on television content
during the preceding twenty years. Frank discussions of sexuality,
even outside of traditional heterosexual monogamy, became the focal
point of many of the comedy's narratives. The series also introduced
issues of ethnicity and bigotry as staples of its content. Constraints
on the use of profanity began to crumble as well. Scriptwriters
began to pepper dialogue with "damns" and "hells," language not
permitted during the more conservative 1950s and 1960s.
the redefinition of the desirable audience in the early 1970s did
expand the parameters of appropriate content for television programming,
the new candor prompted reactions from several fronts, and demonstrated
larger divisions within social and cultural communities. As early
as 1973 the Supreme Court emphasized that community standards vary
from place to place: "It is neither realistic nor constitutionally
sound to read the First Amendment as requiring that people of Maine
or Mississippi accept public depiction of conduct found tolerable
in Las Vegas or New York City." Clearly such a ruling leaves it
to states or communities to define what is acceptable and what is
not, a task which cannot be carried out to everyone's satisfaction.
When applying community standards, the courts must decide what the
"average person, in the community" finds acceptable or not and some
communities are clearly more conservative than others. These standards
are particularly difficult to apply to television programming which
is produced, for economic reasons, to cross all such regional and
part as a result of these divisions, however, special interest or
advocacy groups began to confront the networks about representations
and content that had not been present before 1971. For some social
groups which had had very little, if any, visibility during the
first twenty years of American broadcast television, the expanding
parameters of programming content were a mixed blessing. The inclusion
of Hispanics, African-Americans, and gays and lesbians in programming
was preferable to their near invisibility during the previous two
decades, but advocacy groups often took issue with the framing and
stereotyping of the new images. From the contrasting perspective,
conservative groups began to oppose the incorporation of topics
within content which did not align easily with traditional American
values or beliefs. In particular, the American Family Association
decried the increasing presentation of non-traditional sexual behavior
as acceptable in broadcast programming. Other groups rallied against
the increased use of violence in broadcast content. As a result,
attempts to define the boundaries of appropriate content has become
an ongoing struggle as the networks negotiate their own interests
against those of advertisers and various social groups. Whereas
censorship in the 1950s and 1960s was based on the presumed standards
and tastes of the white middle-class nuclear family, censorship
in the 1970s became a process of balancing the often conflicting
values of marginal social groups.
proliferation of cable in the 1980s and the 1990s has only exacerbated
the conflicts over programming and censorship. Because of a different
mode of distribution and exhibition--often referred to as "narrowcasting--cable
television has been able to offer more explicit sexual and violent
programming than broadcast television. To compete for the viewing
audience that increasing turns to cable television channels, the
broadcast networks have loosened restrictions on programming content
enabling them to include partial nudity, somewhat more graphic violence
and the use of coarse language. This strategy seems to have been
partially successful in attracting viewers as evidenced by the popularity
of adult dramas such as NYPD Blue. However, this programming
approach has opened the networks to further attacks from conservative
advocacy groups who have increased the pressure for government regulation,
i.e. censorship, of objectionable program content.
these issues and problems indicate, most Americans, because of cherished
First Amendment rights, are extremely sensitive to any forms of
censorship. Relative to other countries, however, the United States
enjoys remarkable freedom from official monitoring of program content.
Negative reactions are often expressed toward imported or foreign
programs when they do not reflect indigenous norms and values. "Cutting
of scenes" is practiced far more in developing countries than in
western countries. And Americans may find it interesting to note
that even European countries consider exposure to nudity and sex
to be less objectionable than abusive language or violence.
Head et al. (1994) point out that the control of media and media
content is also related to the type of government in power within
a particular country. They identify four types of governmental philosophy
related to the issue of censorship; authoritarian, paternalistic,
pluralistic and permissive. Of the four types, the first two are
more inclined to exercise censorship because they assume they know
what is best for citizens. Anything that challenges this exclusive
view must be banned or excluded. Since most broadcasting in such
countries is state funded, control is relatively easy to impose.
Exclusionary methods include governmental control of broadcast stations'
licenses, jamming external broadcasts, promoting indigenous programming,
imposing restrictions on imported programs, excluding newspaper
articles, cutting scenes from films, shutting down printing presses,
and permissive governments allow for varying degrees of private
ownership of broadcasting stations. Such governments assume that
citizens will choose what they consider best in a free market where
competing media companies offer their products. Such an ideal can
only be effective, of course, if the competitors are roughly equal
and operate in the interests of the public. To maintain this "balance
of ideas" in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) established rules which control the formation of media monopolies
and require stations to demonstrate they operate in the interests
of their audiences' good. Despite such intentions, recent deregulation
has disturbed the balance, allowing powerful media conglomerates
to dominate the market place and reduce the number of voices heard.
and permissive governments also assume that competing companies
will regulate themselves. Perhaps the most well known attempt at
self regulation is conducted by the Motion Picture Association of
America (MPAA), which rates motion pictures for particular audiences.
For example, the contents of "G" rated movies are considered suitable
for all audiences, "GP" requires parental guidance, "R," "X," and
NC17 are considered appropriate for adults. These standards are
offered as a guide to audiences and have never been strictly enforced.
Parents may take children to see X-rated movies if they so desire.
the past one of the arguments against censorship has been freedom
of choice. Parents who object to offensive television programs can
always switch the channel or choose another show. Unfortunately,
parental supervision is lacking in many households. In the 1990s
this problem, coupled with political and interest group outrage
against media producers has opened the possibility of a self imposed
television rating system similar to that of the MPAA. To counter
conservative criticism and government censorship, producers and
the networks have agreed to begin a ratings system which could be
electronically monitored and blocked in the home. Thus, parents
could effectively censor programming which they found unsuitable
for their children while still allowing the networks to air adult-oriented
the 1970s an early attempt at a similar sort of regulation came
when the FCC encouraged the television industry to introduce a "family
viewing concept," according to which television networks would agree
to delay the showing of adult programs until children were, presumably,
no longer among the audience. The National Association of Broadcasters
willingly complied with this pressure but in 1979 a court ruled
that the NAB's action was a violation of the First Amendment.
the late 1990s, as networks relaxed corporate restrictions on content
in their competition with cable and satellite programming, the early
evening hours once again took on special importance. In mid-1996
more than 75 members of the U.S. Congress placed an open letter
to the entertainment industry in Daily Variety. The letter
called on the creative community and the programmers to provide
an hour of programming each evening that was free from sexual innuendo,
violence, or otherwise troublesome material. Clearly, the question
of censorship in television continues to vex programmers, producers,
government officials, and viewers. No immediate solution to the
problems involved is apparent.
the debate and struggle over censorship of programming will more
than likely continue into the next century, as social groups with
diverse values vie for increased influence over program content.
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