Television regulation in the UK and USA
Underpinning many of the regulatory practices in television are the conceptual boundaries that classify and define what is appropriate to the public and the private spheres. Indeed, television has contributed enormously to the changing boundaries and relations between the public and the private through its central role in the formation of public debate in a mass-mediated, global public sphere. Television is a medium that brings public events and debate into the private world of the home, and, conversely, makes public the private lives of citizens through their representation in a mass medium. Content censorship is designed to protect viewers from harm. The UK obscenity laws demand that nothing be shown that might ‘corrupt or deprave’. It is children who are considered most vulnerable in this respect. The definition of ‘obscenity’ in the USA invokes ‘community standards’ that would judge the material as appealing to ‘prurient interest (arousing lustful feelings)’ in a ‘patently offensive way’. Should the work have any redeeming literary, artistic, political or scientific value it is categorized as ‘indecent’ and can be broadcast only between the hours of 10.00 p. m. and 6.00 a. m. (Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau: www. fcc. gov/cgb/consumerfacts/obscene/html). These regulations are based on codes of decorum designed to minimize the danger of causing offence using criteria based on socially produced ideals of ‘good taste’ and ‘decency’. They also depend on normative assumptions about the mode of address appropriate to the context of the family living room. Scheduling practices are also differentiated according to time of day, channel and genre in accordance with assumptions about who will be watching. They draw on a whole range of discourses – religious, pedagogic, medical, psychological, political and aesthetic – to determine whether sexual content might be immoral, harmful, tasteless or, conversely, justified by its political, educational or aesthetic value.
The regulation of sexual representation on UK and US television can be understood as an ongoing struggle between traditional religious moral discourses and liberalism. The Christian religion has been an important influence on established regulatory practices (Bocock 1997). The first director-general of the BBC was the strongly religious Lord Reith, who instituted a concept of public service broadcasting that has had a long-term effect on the regulatory framework for commercial as well as publicly funded television in the UK. In his view, television should be a force for social and moral improvement through education and information, as well as entertainment. This agenda was reinforced by the National Viewers and Listeners Association, which was influential during the 1970s and 1980s in promoting ‘family values’ and the sanctity of marriage in the face of what was perceived as a rising tide of sexual imagery on television and the media in general. Although the UK is an increasingly secular society, the residual effects of these moral codes are still present. The shame attached to sexual pleasure helps to explain a widespread dislike of watching sexually oriented television, especially when viewing in a family context. A question for the future is what effect the
many religious faiths of immigrant populations may have on regulatory regimes designed to deliver ‘diversity’.
The rise of ‘neo-liberal’ economics and its promotion of consumer values have joined these religious influences, with contradictory effects. For example, in the UK, the deregulatory aims of the Broadcasting Act of 1990 were tempered by the paternalistic, moralistic conservatism of the ruling Conservative Party. ‘Free markets’ were encouraged by competitive tendering for broadcasting franchises and the established broadcasters were subject to competition from independent producers, but they also had to pass a public-service-style ‘quality’ threshold and conform to all kinds of content restrictions on unfettered commercialism. Top-down regulation over content was strengthened in the areas of taste and decency by the formation of the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC), which formulated a ‘Code on Sexual Conduct’ that included strict rules against the portrayal of sexual coercion. This added to the existing framework of Producers’ Guidelines overseen by the BBC Board of Governors and the Independent Television Commission’s (ITC) Codes of Practice, such as its ‘Code on Sex and Nudity’. However, the BSC’s extensive audience research during the course of the 1990s had the effect of unearthing a complex array of opinion about what is considered acceptable sexual representation, and what people find pleasurable. This has contributed to the legitimation of a greater diversity in television’s sexual address as a consequence.
By contrast, government interference in the mechanisms of free trade has long been regarded in the USA with hostility. It is linked in neo-liberal rhetoric with the protection of the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. The FCC consists of five people appointed by the Senate who deal with telecom as well as broadcasting regulation. Until 1991 interventions were allowed on the basis of the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to reflect different shades of opinion on controversial issues (Harvey 1998; Winston 2000: 109). For instance, in 1987 the producers of the crime drama series Cagney and Lacey were required to ensure that balance was achieved within an episode concerning abortion, always a controversial issue in the USA, and the focus of lobbying by the Christian ‘Pro-Life’ and feminist ‘Right to Choose’ campaigns (Shaw 1999: 88). But now the FCC has very limited powers in relation to content regulation, especially since the deregulatory impact of the Reagan administration in the 1980s (Shaw 1999: xii). However, an exception is anything that is deemed to be obscene or indecent. In the USA, Christian fundamentalism is still a major political influence and acts as counter-discourse to the laissez-faire ethics of liberalism and consumerism. At its most fundamentalist it denies the sexual agency or pleasure of women, regarding sex as something that they endure in order to bear children. Puritanism is suspicious of all sensual pleasures rooted in the body, seeing them as an evil distraction from the spiritual life located in the rational mind and the soul (Bocock 1997). Only where sexuality is framed within a pedagogic discourse designed to teach children and teenagers about the dangers of AIDS or the avoidance of teenage pregnancy, for example, is it above suspicion. The fear is that knowledge about sexuality will encourage children to ‘experiment’ with sex prematurely.
Unlike the British system, the US television industry is an almost entirely market – based, commercial enterprise (except for a very marginal and low-cost public broadcasting channel). For entertainment programmes on the networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, WBN) the standards and practices department for each company regulates output. It monitors each programme from its inception, basing its judgements on audience research, just as the advertisers do. The effect of this system of regulation is to make US network television far more restrictive in sexual content than the seemingly ‘authoritarian’ system of state control. The drive to make profits as the sole aim of the networks means that they cannot afford to alienate their audience or, more accurately, the advertisers on whom their profits depend. They are nervous of ratings being adversely affected by controversial content. Unlike the FCC or the ITC or BSC they make judgements about programmes before transmission (Shaw 1999: 51-2). Puritanism exerts a powerful restraint on sexual expression given the much higher proportion of religious believers in the USA compared to the UK and the powerful lobby they represent in support of ‘family values’. This internal regulation is considered a matter of commercial judgement and is thus acceptable, and quite unlike the external imposition of regulations by the government (Shaw 1999: 85; Winston 2000: 110). Quite different market imperatives apply to the cable system, which are explored later in the chapter.
Each system of regulation is an outcome of deeply held beliefs about the processes of regulating culture. While the USA feels uneasy about restrictions imposed by state regulation, many people in the UK are worried by the unfettered power of markets to determine what we watch (Winston 2000: 11). However, despite differences in the philosophy and mechanisms of public service and commercial systems, they share the desire not to offend the audience. In both systems institutionalized conceptions of the audience have an important influence on how they are addressed by television. Equally, the expectations that viewers have of television exert a constraint on the choice of topics and the manner in which they are treated. Viewers want to know what to expect so that they can adapt their own behaviour accordingly. This relationship, based as it is on a set of institutionalized assumptions, operates as a key factor in the regulation of television production (Ang 1991, 1996). Avoiding offence can be regarded as a matter of decorum, of manners, the rules for which vary according to context. In deciding on an appropriate mode of address, then, broadcasters must take into account the time and the place of the encounter as well as the assumed characteristics of the imagined audience, with different national systems taking account of prevailing cultural attitudes within the boundaries of their jurisdiction.
As I have already emphasized, television’s distribution into the home has had a strong influence on its modes of address. The protection of children from ‘unsuitable influences’ and their parents from embarrassment in the context of a private, but family, context of viewing has been a paramount concern, even though this kind of household is, increasingly, in the minority. In addressing a household the patterns of scheduling are built on assumptions about who will be watching at particular times of day and what mood they will be in (Gitlin 1994: 56-62; Ellis 2000: 130-47). The time of day, the day of the week, the season, all have an impact on what is deemed appropriate. In the UK, for instance, 9.00 p. m. is known as the watershed. Before that time it is assumed that children will be watching and this limits what sexual portrayal is allowed. For example, no simulated sexual intercourse can appear before that time. More controversial sexual portrayals are scheduled even later. For instance, adverts for gay chat lines are only allowed to appear after 11.00 p. m. and soft pornography channels are restricted to the hours between 10.00 p. m. and 6.00 a. m. These patterns of scheduling are supplemented by verbal warnings at the start of programmes to warn viewers to switch off if they might be offended.
Of course, this also has the effect of advertising sexual content to those people who might actively choose to watch. Research has shown that viewers dislike being surprised by sexual content, as it can make them feel embarrassed, especially if they are watching with other people (Millwood Hargrave 1992). In the USA a new ratings system that combined age and content advice on a sliding scale of intensity was instituted in 1997, at the behest of the FCC but in the control of the television companies. It was designed to work alongside the ‘V-chip’ technology installed in new sets to enable parents to block out reception of programmes rated as having unsuitable content for children (Gunter 2002: 272-5). These are ways to accommodate a greater diversity in audience address alongside the multiplication of channels and television sets and the time-shift possibilities of video, TiVo and DVD.
A key regulatory influence, in my view, is the ways in which diverse genres and channels, addressed to different segments of the audience, are structured by institutionalized distinctions in taste. The conventions of genre regulate the topics they deal with and the manner in which they are treated. These in turn are based on an assumed relation with an audience: genres addressed to high-status audiences are allowed to be more explicit and controversial (this is discussed in more depth in Chapter 3). The schedule is also divided across a grid of channels, each with its own distinctive ‘brand identity’ designed to establish expectations among viewers of the type of programmes it will offer and the manner in which they will be addressed. An advertising campaign for UKG2, for instance, a new digital channel based on recycled mainstream programming launched in 2003, shows how significant sexuality is to this branding. UKG2 explicitly distances itself from ‘sleazy’ sex with the slogan ‘Not on our channel’ stamped across the middle of a TV screen showing a woman with large breasts in skin-tight rubber flanked by two ‘gay’ men in skimpy outfits. A sexually explicit ‘art film’, on the other hand, that could be shown uncut on BBC2 would be cut for BBC1, according to the channel controller Alan Yentob (Shaw 1999: 53). The kind of people who watch BBC2, it is implied, have the cultural capital to appreciation ‘art’ and this legitimates the sex as culturally worthwhile. Subsequent chapters explore the ways in
Figure 1 Not on our channel. Advertisement for a new digital channel, UKG2 (in Guardian TV Guide November 2003).
which these distinctions in taste affect the forms of sexual representation across a range of channels and genres.
Taste cultures change over time, however, as moral attitudes and codes of social interaction change. The growing tolerance among the audience of a wider range of sexual identities on television was noted, for example, in a report published by the BSC in 1992, Sex and Sexuality in Broadcasting. It found that while homosexuality still caused the most offence to television viewers, there was a widening gap between younger people and the over 55s. The same trends are noticeable in the USA, where network programmes featuring gay men, such as Will and Grace (NBC 1998—) or Queer Eye for a Straight Guy (Bravo and NBC 2003—), have achieved popular success.
Concerns over sexually explicit images and language are still central to regulatory regimes but even this is subject to cultural change. A growing informality in language use has become the norm as deference to authority and religious taboos have diminished, although the impact of the new social movements, such as feminist campaigns against sexist language, has meant that new sensitivities and restrictions have emerged. How this plays out in practice requires negotiations between writers and producers over, for example, how many uses of the word ‘fuck’ can be tolerated in any half hour. While this previously ‘obscene’ word is now allowed on British television after 9.00 p. m., ‘cunt’ still lies on the other side of acceptability because of its sexism (Shaw 1999: 109-10). However, in 2004 when John Lydon called the voters ‘fucking cunts’ on the reality game show I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and it went out live and therefore uncensored, only a handful of people complained. This led to a prolonged discussion in the press as to whether this indicated that it was now an acceptable word to use on television.
The biggest impact on the degree of explicitness now tolerated on television was the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s. It made detailed discussion and advice about people’s sexual behaviour, including the sexual practices of gay men, a necessary part of television’s public service role to prevent the epidemic escalating. Condom advertising was allowed for the first time and advice on how to use condoms was included in the daytime and primetime schedules (Watney 1997). Even so, the display of an erect penis is still a taboo. Various substitute penis-shaped objects were used instead for these demonstrations. This and the ban on showing real rather than simulated penetrative sexual intercourse is still the key boundary marker between ‘soft core’ and ‘hard core’ sexual representation (see Chapter 3).