Mark Harris considers whether the candidate's message to the industry -- ''I'm on your side -- now clean up your act'' -- may turn out to be a landmark in the ''culture wars''
Barack Obama
Credit: Chris Carlson/AP Photo

Obama: Change in Hollywood?

In the middle of what has been a very busy couple of weeks for Sen. Barack Obama, a minor but fascinating transformational moment took place that has gone almost entirely undiscussed in the press. It happened in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, during the last Democratic debate before Superconfusing Tuesday, and it marked the first really public instance in the 2008 campaign in which a Democratic candidate was required to address, as a politician and as a parent, what to do about sex and violence in Hollywood entertainment, something that, every four years, we like to pretend is the president’s job. The crowd awaiting Obama’s answer at the Kodak Theatre was a houseful of largely Democratic showbiz luminaries. In other words, a friendly room. (Plus over 8 million CNN viewers.)

Early in his response, the senator said bluntly, ”The primary responsibility is for parents, and I reject the notion of censorship as an approach to dealing with this problem.” Unshockingly, he got big cheers for that, because (a) he’s right and (b) the man knows his audience. But the rest of his answer had a different impact. His words may not have caused an earthquake in Los Angeles, but I’m pretty sure some of the studio and network executives in the house uneasily sensed the ground shifting beneath their feet.

Senator Obama began by noting that he has two young daughters who, right now, ”mostly are [watching] Nickelodeon, but they know how to work that remote…[and] I do think that it is important for us to make sure that we are giving parents the tools that they need in order to monitor what their children are watching…not just what’s coming over the airwaves, but what’s coming over the Internet.” He continued: ”I don’t mean to be insulting here, but…it is important for those in the industry to show some thought about who they are marketing some of these programs to…. I’m concerned about sex, but I’m also concerned [about] some of the violent slasher-horror films that come out…. I don’t want my 6-year-old or 9-year-old seeing that trailer while she’s watching American Idol.”

There are rare moments in the political life of an issue when somebody suddenly redefines the center by articulating a position that sounds so much like a commonsense consensus that it becomes very hard for anyone to argue the point, either to the right or to the left. We’ll see what happens between now and November, but I suspect that on this issue, Obama, whether he’s nominated or not, may have effectively killed the subject of the ”culture wars” by splitting the difference between First Amendment absolutists who don’t want to discuss how vile or degrading a movie or TV show is as long as it’s legal, and far-right-wing rejectionists who believe pop culture is the devil’s playground and who are probably still puzzling over what the senator meant by ”Nickelodeon” or, for that matter, ”remote.”

Obama’s insistence that Hollywood take some responsibility for marketing did not seem to delight the room. Lecturing Hollywood on responsibility in marketing is a little like asking the town drunk to be sure and keep those pit bulls chained up in the yard. There was what I would call polite clapping: You’ve heard that type of applause in the Kodak before; it’s the sound people make right after they don’t win an Oscar. CNN’s director quickly cut to a shot of audience member Rob Reiner, who was seen offering a shrug of Emmy-worthy ambivalence. Reiner worked with Carroll O’Connor on All in the Family for eight seasons; the guy knows how to nail a reaction shot. It’s impossible to tell from looking if that shrug meant ”He’s got a point,” or ”Here we go again,” or ”Yes, but…”

”Yes, but…” won’t cut it. Hollywood’s moguls just got served notice that if they want a Democratic administration that will get the fine-happy, rightward-pandering FCC off their backs, they’re going to have to play ball on tough TV ratings, parental-lock technologies, and (this one will hurt) advertising. Because what they heard from Obama is a position that is going to appeal to a lot of Americans who want the right to watch any entertainment they damn well please, but don’t want inappropriate material shoved in kids’ faces, especially during shows kids watch.

His position will be tough to oppose. The pro-censorship forces who just want sex and violence off the air lost that battle the day cable was born, and as for the left…well, even die-hard liberals like me are tired of hearing yet another director talk about how every character in a teen-appeal movie smokes because it’s ”important to the story” or explain that disemboweling a woman in a horror film is ”transgressive” when we know it’s really all about money. On Jan. 31, Senator Obama basically told the entertainment industry, ”I’m on your side — now clean up your act.” It’ll be interesting to see if his position starts one more battle in the culture wars, or if, at last, the language for a truce has been found.