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Thread: Prim America blanks out British TV's naughty bits

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    Prim America blanks out British TV's naughty bits

    Sarah Baxter, New York


    IT COULD be a case for Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison. How did autopsy photographs of naked corpses in her crime series Prime Suspect end up on American television with black triangles in intimate places?

    And why did the gritty investigator’s mouth mysteriously blur every time she lost her temper? Could it have been to bar US viewers from lipreading the curses she spat at indolent subordinates?


    The smooth tones of Dame Helen Mirren, who plays Tennison, have been punctuated with bleeps for two weeks running in the latest signal that the American media are redrawing the boundaries of public taste and decency after months of convulsions since Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s breast at the Superbowl on live TV.

    Matters were not helped by an equally unwelcome outburst from the Irish rock star Bono, who said it was “really, really f****** brilliant” to get an award at the Golden Globes.

    A counterblast of prim pronouncements has followed in radio and TV stations across the country, and British musicians have been among the targets.

    Some radio stations have ruled that Elton John’s The Bitch is Back is too offensive to be played on air. The same fate has befallen Bitch, by the Rolling Stones. Pink Floyd’s Money has also been dropped from playlists because of a lyric that sums up the attitude of many bands to the restrictions: “Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit.”

    One Midwestern radio station has banned the words “urinate”, “damn” and “orgy” from the talk show of the right-wing motormouth Rush Limbaugh.

    Bubba the Love Sponge, another radio DJ, was fired after joking about what Scooby Doo might do in a crack and whorehouse, and Howard Stern, the funny but foul-mouthed “shock jock”, has been dropped by six stations despite protests from thousands of fans who say there is more smut on Oprah Winfrey’s confessional TV talk show.

    The new prudery that has gripped media executives, some of whom are not known for demure private lives, may have more to do with money than morality.

    The watchdog Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has threatened to fine television and radio stations up to $3m and tear up their operating licences if they broadcast indecent or obscene material.

    Bubba the Love Sponge and Howard Stern have attracted fines of $755,000 and $495,000 respectively. Stern is so furious that he has promised to make George W Bush pay by turning his huge nationwide following against the president in November’s election.

    Robert Corn-Revere, a Washington-based lawyer, is challenging the FCC on free-speech grounds on behalf of a coalition of broadcasters and activists. “Can you believe they are having to edit Prime Suspect?” he said.

    Jane Berryman, a retired advertising executive from North Carolina, was amazed to find Mirren’s mouth obscured when she settled down to watch the detective drama earlier this month.

    “It seems so primitive,” she said. “ Language is an evolving concept. Back in Victorian times you didn’t mention the word ‘leg’. If you take the long view, some of this language we don’t really enjoy will come into the mainstream.”

    Sex and swearing may be staple fare for Sex and the City and The Sopranos, but the rules governing the public airwaves in America are far more stringent than those for subscription cable and satellite stations.

    The trend had long been towards liberalisation from the days when married couples in television sitcoms had separate beds. That gear has now been thrown sharply into reverse.

    “A lot of broadcasters are erring on the side of caution,” said a PBS spokeswoman. “There is a feeling that what was appropriate two months ago may not be any more.”

    Critics accuse Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC and son of Colin Powell, the secretary of state, of giving in to the demands of the conservative right in election year. He had previously asserted: “I don’t want the government to be my nanny.”

    One of the most prominent anti-indecency crusaders is Brent Bozell, a right-wing commentator who founded the Parents Television Council in 1995 to monitor broadcasts, Mary Whitehouse-style. In just four years the number of complaints to the FCC has leapt from little more than 100 to 240,000, most of them concerning a handful of shows targeted by the council.

    Bozell believes broadcasters are getting the message. Jackson has buttoned up her blouse and Bono has been cowed. “I swear I won’t swear at the Golden Globes again,” he said.
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