Editor’s Note: Entertainment Weekly recently assembled a panel of standards and practices executives from four of the five broadcast television networks for a candid chat about their very secretive work and the pressures of satisfying the increasingly vague demands of the Federal Communications Commission. Here, more of that discussion with our panelists, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Does the FCC require that your departments exist?
EXECUTIVE 1 No.
EXECUTIVE 3 They really grew out of the quiz show scandal.
EXECUTIVE 4 There was also a show on ABC in 1961 called Bus Stop that featured a violent episode which infuriated some senators. After being called down to Washington to testify first about the quiz show scandal and then Bus Stop, the networks empowered their broadcast standards department to really have teeth and to basically oversee everything that they did with respect to content. That’s how it sort of began.
What seems to consume most of your time these days?
EXECUTIVE 4 The depiction of groups. When it comes to comedy, a lot of producers will say, ”Can’t people take a joke?” And when it comes to dramas, [producers will say], ”Well, Hispanics are drug dealers. We see it in the newspaper every day.” The producers don’t get the point. If TV is the only way America sees a group, and if the only way the Hispanic person [is being depicted] is as a maid or a drug dealer, there’s a real problem.
Given the political climate, I have to wonder whether I Love Lucy would air today, given how racist Lucy was with Ricky — like how she used to make fun of his Cuban accent.
EXECUTIVE 2 Yeah, she definitely was. These are things that standards executives look for, even though they are not regulated by the FCC.
EXECUTIVE 1 Stereotyping.
EXECUTIVE 2 Yes, stereotyping. We need to make certain they are fairly depicted and portrayed because we’ve got a brand to protect. We, for example, could not be fined because someone said ”n—–,” although I certainly would argue that it is indecent.
EXECUTIVE 1 But not in terms of the FCC regulations.
EXECUTIVE 2 Absolutely right.
Will we ever hear the F-word in primetime?
EXECUTIVE 1 It will either take a court ruling or a change in the law, because at the moment the deliberate use of the word f— in a scripted show outside of the safe harbor [6 a.m. to 10 p.m.] would probably be found indecent and be sustained.
It seems like the networks are under scrutiny more than ever. Does this all go back to Janet Jackson and the Super Bowl?
EXECUTIVE 1 It actually comes in cycles. You know, we lived through this in the mid-’90s, when the V-chip was enacted. The ’96 Democratic convention in Chicago was like a prayer meeting for the V-chip. But this is a good cycle. There tends to be something that precipitates it. When NYPD Blue premiered, that kicked off a wave. In the early ’90s, there was a TV knockoff of the movie Uncle Buck and the little girl says to Uncle Buck in the pilot, ”You suck.” It was the topic [among TV reporters] that year. It can be difficult to predict, but there’s usually some kind of precipitating event. Obviously, the Super Bowl was thermonuclear.
So did the Super Bowl start this particular cycle?
EXECUTIVE 1 Well, there was some dry tinder. Bono said ”This is really, really f–king brilliant” on the 2003 Golden Globes.
EXECUTIVE 2 Fox had the Billboard Awards [in which Cher said ”f—” in 2002 and Nicole Ritchie said ”s—” in 2003]. We’re already being tugged and pulled and pushed into different directions. The sands shift every day enough as it is. I tell my staff to read viewer complaints or questions or concerns as benchmarks: Is there tinder there? Are we going to be seeing a social shift?
EXECUTIVE 1 If parents aren’t going to parent, there is no solution to this problem. At a hearing a few years ago a young mother was sitting next to me and she said during her testimony that she couldn’t possibly monitor what her 12-year-old daughter was watching. I didn’t challenge her during the hearing, but when it was over I said, ”You know, I happen to have a 12-year-old, and I didn’t understand what you meant.” She said, ”Well, she’s back there watching TV in her bedroom.” God forbid you should walk back there and see what she’s watching!