In May of this year, Carl’s Jr. ran a commercial featuring Paris Hilton dressed in a couture bathing suit and soaping herself and her Bentley in a manner that the Parents Television Council felt was inappropriate for the selling of meat patties. It was the most galvanizing event for the PTC since Janet Jackson’s breast. In the days after the Carl’s Jr. ad aired, the council, whose stated goal is to rid the airwaves of excessive sex and violence and profanity, saw its incoming call volume rise 600 percent and its e-mails more than double. Council representatives issued a series of press statements calling the ad soft-core pornography Then they appeared on national television shows condemning Carl’s Jr. for its corporate irresponsibility in airing such an ad. After that, the council posted a click-and-send “take action alert” on its Web site so that its 1 million members might carpet bomb Carl’s Jr.’s parent company, CKE Restaurants, with e-mails reiterating these thoughts.
The council was not the only group upset by the ad. The Tupelo, Mississippi—based American Family Association, Reverend Donald Wildmon’s organization, was so furious that it asked its members, who were already busy protesting Kraft because of its support of the homosexual lifestyle, to start calling and sending letters to Carl’s Jr. immediately But the AFA never gets as much press as the more famous PTC, which bills itself as a nonpartisan, nonreligious television watchdog group that doesn’t believe in censorship. The PTC is ten years old and has offices in Los Angeles and Alexandria, Virginia, and 37 grassroots branches around the country and an extensive Web site that provides guidance for concerned parents. (Among its features are reviews and lists of the best and worst television shows for family viewing, of which Everwood, CSI, Will & Grace, Fear Factor, That ’70s Show, and a TV movie called Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork and Mindy were recently deemed the worst, and Nanny 911, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and the Happy Days 30th Anniversary Reunion the best.) The council and its members are well known for writing angry letters to the networks that broadcast things they don’t like and to the corporations that sponsor them and to the Federal Communications Commission for not enforcing existing obscenity laws. In 2004, members sent more than 240,000 letters and e-mails to the FCC, the vast majority of them about sex and profanity; 50,000 alone were for Nicole Richie’s use of the F word at the Billboard Music Awards.
Most people did not pay any attention to the PTC or its letters, certainly not the FCC, which called them spam, until Janet Jackson’s breast vaulted the organization into the public consciousness and onto the airwaves, where the council said that the amount of profanity had risen 95 percent over the past four years. The reason it knew this is that it employs eight full-time researchers who do nothing but watch television in cubicles all day and note every instance of sex and gore and vulgarity and disrespect for authority, all of which is broken down into subgroups such as “teen sex,” “premarital sex,” “sexual innuendo,” “gun deaths,” “knife deaths,” “decapitations,” and “shit,” “piss,” “dick,” “bastard,” and “whore.” These findings are fed into a proprietary database called the Entertainment Tracking System, or ETS, which allows the council to determine the exact increase in vibrator references this spring over last and to document the overall decline in televised decency by graph or by pie chart, which it then publishes in attractive pamphlets with titles like “TV Bloodbath,” “The Sour Family Hour,” and “MTV Smut Peddlers.”
The council’s decision to portray itself as the nation’s foremost expert on television content is but one of the reasons for its success, and last year was its most successful ever. According to its 2004 annum report, the council’s 50,000 letters about Nicole Richie’s F word were, if not fully responsible, at least partially responsible for Fox’s announcement that it would delay all live programs for up to five minutes. The council’s 65,000 letters about Janet Jackson were said to have prompted ABC’s decision to air the Academy Awards on a tape delay, as well as CBS’s cancellation of its annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. The PTC also believes it deserves credit for Clear Channel’s decision to drop Bubba the Love Sponge and Howard Stern. One of the council’s greatest victories was the FCC’s final decision on Bono’s utterance of the line “This is really, really fucking brilliant” at the 2003 Golden Globes. Initially the FCC judged it not to be indecent because the word was used as an adjective. But perhaps clue to the council’s 18,667 letters, the FCC changed its mind and declared that the word is, in fact, obscene, and children should be shielded from it at all times no matter what its context.
A FEW WEEKS AFTER THE CARL’S JR. AD came out, I visited the PTC’s headquarters, which according to its literature is based in Hollywood but is actually in a downtown office tower. The entranceway is decorated with the photographs of all the celebrities and personages who support the PTC or who are on its advisory committee. These include Jane Seymour, Billy Ray Cyrus, Naomi Judd, William Bennett, and Pat Boone, who sits on its board and who is pictured in a stars-and-stripes ensemble. There is also a photo of Steve Allen, who until he died was the council’s honorary chairperson and whose disappointed face used to appear in the full-page newspaper ads the council took out around the country chastising Hollywood for “leading children down a moral sewer.”
The PTC set up shop here so as to work closely with the networks to create family-friendly programming. But the studios don’t like the council and don’t return its phone calls, said Tim Winter, the group’s executive director. “People in Hollywood call us Bible thumpers and right-wing nuts, and they say we want to censor television, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “We’re not religious, and we’re not partisan. I myself am a Democrat and a liberal. I love that show Deadwood. And I don’t want it taken off the air. It’s a matter of time and place, that’s all. We see the airwaves as being sort of like a public park, and so you have to ask yourself, Do I want to have that anal sex show next to the swing set at 10 a.m. or 10 p.m.? It’s simple. It’s commonsensical.”
As he was saying this, Winter put on a DVD of things the PTC recently found upsetting. The DVD, titled “TV’s Worst Clips 2005,” opened with Nicole Richie saying “cow shit” and “fuckin'” at the Billboard Music Awards, Cher saying “Fuck ’em” at another Billboard awards show, and a clip from South Park in which the characters masturbate a dog. The dog clip was followed by a young boy gaping at a fully naked lady, a woman licking whipped cream off a stripper’s breasts, and then a teenage orgy. “That went on at 8 p.m.,” Winter said of the orgy. Next came an anal rape, a demon eating a woman’s flesh, men burning another man alive, multiple stabbings in a sauna, a man forcing another man’s face onto a lit stove burner, and another gentleman having sex with a life-size sex doll. “That went on at 10, 9 central,” Winter said of the doll. The DVD wound down with a woman being raped at knifepoint in front of her family and ended with a clip from The Shield in which a gang member who has kidnapped the police chief forces the man to give him a blow job at gunpoint.
Only an awfully drunk frat boy wouldn’t have been stunned. “And it’s getting worse,” Winter said. “Over a thousand studies have been done attesting to the fact that violence on television leads to violent behavior in children, and now studies show that children exposed to sexual content have sex at an earlier age. So we gotta put our helmets on. We’re fighting here!” Winter is tall and looks to be in his forties and has sandy hair and a calm and gentle demeanor and a face that looks heartbroken by all the senseless plundering of innocence. Before he came to the Parents Television Council he worked in finance and business development at NBC for 15 years and in MGM’s video game division for two years. But he had no idea how terrible television had become until he spent the day at home with his young daughter and saw the extremes. In the morning there were news reports from Salt Lake City about sightings of the kidnapped teenager Elizabeth Smart, which he thought were excellent because her abductors were apprehended within hours. But in the late afternoon a reality dating show came on in which one of the female contestants attempted to win a man by putting whipped cream on her breasts and letting him lick it off. “I was taken aback,” Winter said. ‘As a father of a girl, I thought, ‘If little girls are watching this, they’ll get the message that if they want boys to like them, this is what they have to do.’ I was in the business for a long time, and for the first time in my life I realized what these shows were doing, and within a week or so I learned about the PTC and saw they were looking for an executive director, and I said, ‘Bingo.'”
Most of the whiz-bang stuff happens in Virginia, Winter said, referring to the eight full-time TV watchers. The Los Angeles office is responsible for the council’s marketing, fund-raising, and grassroots campaigns. At the time of my visit, council members in Arkansas were filing an opposition to the FCC’s renewal of affiliates’ licenses. Other members had been sending children out to buy superviolent video games in an effort to prove how readily available they were to minors. But the Carl’s Jr. affair was still taking up much of Winter’s energy The chain announced that the purpose of the Paris Hilton ad was to sell hamburgers, and that’s what it was doing, and until it stopped doing that, Carrs Jr. had no intention of taking the ad off the air. It had also blocked 20,000 e-mails from the council, first by subject line, then by the PTC’s IP address, then by keyword. But Winter wasn’t discouraged. When a company ignores the PTC, the strategy is to buy stock and go to the company’s annual shareholder meeting and read transcripts of the offensive shows it has sponsored at the open-mic sessions. “You want to see knickers getting twisted,” Winter said. “You want to see sphincters slammed shut!”
The week before, Winter had sent one of his associates to Louisville to attend the shareholder meeting of Yum! brands, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Long John Silver’s. The associate read transcripts from two episodes of The Shield, a program the PTC said Yum! frequently sponsors. The first transcript described the rape of a woman in graphic detail. After that the shareholders were made to sit through a scene in which a character named Diego is discovered with his head between a young girl’s legs. The council finished its presentation by asking the company’s CEO if he thought such content was consistent with its corporate image, and if he didn’t, would he pledge to his shareholders that he would adopt a zero-tolerance policy for sponsoring such shows in the future?
The PTC is not the first group to write letters and make scenes at shareholder meetings. In 1989, a concerned housewife from Michigan named Terry Rakolta led a boycott against Married … with Children, demanding that advertisers pull their spots on the grounds that they were supporting soft-core pornography, and some of them did. But the more attention Rakolta called to the show, the more popular it became, and the more advertisers stepped in to sponsor it. Winter thinks the tide has turned in the PTC’s favor, however. “We’ve had well over 100 advertisers pull out of Nip/Tuck and The Shield by asking if the shows are consistent with their corporate image,” he said. “Because just as you can’t have ten-year-olds making shoes in your factory, you wouldn’t want to be sponsoring orgies, would you? All we’re asking them to do is withhold advertising dollars until they know what the content is, to say, ‘I’d like to see that script,’ so they can be comfortable that whatever happens is consistent with the message of their corporations.”
Many PEOPLE DO NOT BELIEVE THAT THE PTC IS A NONPARTISAN, nonreligious organization that doesn’t promote censorship. That is because the council’s founder and president is L. Brent Bozell III, a Virginia-based conservative columnist and television commentator who was Pat Buchanan’s national finance chairman when he ran for president in 1992. Bozell, whose father wrote speeches for Joseph McCarthy, is also the author of the book Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media. But he is best known for founding the Media Research Center, which is devoted to scientifically documenting the existence of a left-wing media bias. It was to expose this that Bozell first implemented the use of full-time TV watchers, whose database of egregious findings was so well received by people like Rush Limbaugh that Bozell soon became a fixture on the conservative talk-show circuit, where he railed against liberals and raised a good deal of money to expose more truths. Bozell is exceedingly gifted at such activities. He has red hair and has perfected the look of moral outrage, and by 1995 he had exposed so many truths and raised so much money that he decided to expand his offerings by hiring a full-time team of television watchers to prove Hollywood’s complete moral bankruptcy, of which he felt the repeated ass shots on NTPD Blue were but a harbinger.
Realizing that Hollywood would be unfriendly to a conservative like himself, Bozell appointed former talk-show host Steve Allen honorary chairperson of the PTC. Allen came to Bozell’s attention after he made a series of speeches condemning Hollywood. Bozell saw in Allen, a self-described liberal and an agnostic, confirmation of how broad based the disgust with Hollywood had become and decided to exploit it by making joint appearances with him in which they urged people to check their political guns at the door and join the PTC in the name of decency The full-page newspaper ads featuring Alien proved to be a successful fund-raising technique. In 1998, the council claimed to have 500,000 members; by 200l, it reported total contributions of more than $6.5 million.
One of the PTC’s greatest innovations was providing online forms so that the average citizen could file indecency complaints with the FCC. Before, this was a cumbersome task, requiring a transcript or video documentation of the offending material, which discouraged all but the zealots (such as the person who protested the nakedness of the concentration camp prisoners in a broadcast of Schindler’s List). “It was a goofy demand,” says Bozell. “So we posted transcripts for the public that they could just send in.”
After Allen died in 2000, the council’s attempts to portray itself as a mainstream organization were derailed when it was sued by the World Wrestling Federation for a series of false claims it made about a WWF show called Smack Down! Bozell and the PTC repeatedly blamed Smack Down! for a recent spate of children killing other children, saying they were inspired by moves they learned on the show. According to the PTC, one of them even watched the show while he was committing the murder. It is hard to know how an organization devoted to accuracy in the media got it so wrong, but Bozell had to pay $3-5 million, one of the largest defamation settlements in history, and release a statement saying it was “incorrect and wrong” to have blamed any of the murders on Smack Down! and that the killer the PTC had said was watching Smack Down! during the commission of the crime was actually watching The Flintstones and another cartoon called Cow and Chicken. Furthermore, Bozell admitted that many of the advertisers he claimed had pulled out of sponsoring the show owing to PTC pressure had never advertised on it to begin with.
The WWF also alleged that the Parents Television Council wasn’t, in fact, an independent organization and that PTC donations were being deposited into the Media Research Center’s bank account. Shortly after the trial and Bozell’s subsequent heart attack, the council appeared to have made a concerted effort to reinforce a mainstream image. Bozell fired the outspoken evangelical Christian executive director and hired Tim Winter.
PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS ASKING WINTER HOW A LIBERAL AND A Democrat ended up working for Brent Bozell, but Winter says there was nothing to it. “The first thing I said was, ‘Look, I don’t fit in here politically So if there’s a political litmus test, let’s just save time.’ And Bozell said, ‘It’s not political. If it’s going to have any kind of positive effect, this needs to be totally independent.’ And I said, ‘Let’s talk.'” Ever since then, the two have disagreed about everything, he says. “Gay marriage, for instance, but we’re in complete agreement about television.”
It’s clear why the Parents Television Council hired Winter. It would be hard not to like him, and he’s skilled at deflecting questions about the council’s inconsistencies. Winter insists, for example, that the Parents Television Council is completely independent of the Media Research Center, even though they share two board members, and the Media Research Center’s annual report identifies the council itself as a major benefactor. The PTC’s literature also tends to use language not normally associated with nonpartisan, nonreligious organizations that don’t believe in censorship. There’s a prodigious use of words like “disgusting,” “lascivious,” “filthy,” “immoral,” and “liberal.” Among its many studies is “Faith in a Box,” de voted to pointing out Hollywood’s denigration of God and religion (NBC was identified as the biggest offender). This is only because the council wishes to reach as broad an audience as possible, Winter says. He also defends the PTC’s description of profanity and violence and sex, which many people find overly broad. The council considers “ass,” “whore,” “bastard,” “bitch,” “ball buster,” and bleeped obscenities to be examples of foul language. Among the PTC’s citations of violence is a scene from Everwood in which a syringe is inserted into a patient’s skull to relieve pressure on his brain. Sexual content includes circumcision jokes and double entendres from Will de Grace, such as “You’re not getting your banger anywhere near my mash.”
Winter also takes issue with people who say the PTC’s actions indicate that the council is more interested in creating panic than in finding a solution. If it truly cared about the well-being of children, some critics say, it might mention on its Web site that studies also show that seven out of ten children these days have televisions in their rooms, and concerned parents might think of removing them or at least using existing content controls, such as the V-chip, which, since 1999, the FCC has mandated be installed on any television set larger than 13 inches. The V-chip is supposed to work in conjunction with a ratings system based on content descriptors, like S for sexual situations and L for vulgar language, so that parents can block out anything they deem inappropriate. Winter dismisses the V-chip as a sham because the content descriptors are provided by the networks themselves. “That’s like the fox guarding the chicken coop,” he said. “What about the Super Bowl? That was supposed to be a G-rated program, and it was a striptease. The Golden Globes was a G-rated program, and yet we heard ‘fuck’! The Billboards show was a G-rated program, and yet we heard ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’! If you saw the ratings study we did,” he said, referring to the PTC publication “The Ratings Sham: TV Executives Hiding Behind a System That Doesn’t Work,” “you’ll notice that something like 87 percent did not accurately represent the content that was in those television shows. I mean, it’s fucking ridiculous!”
A FEW BLOCKS from the PTC’s office is the USC Annenberg School’s Center for the Digital Future, which is dedicated to studying the effects of media on society. I asked the center’s director, Jeffrey Cole, if it was true that a child’s innocence could be taken away in “a fraction of a second” by “one flash of graphic sex on television or one brief scene of brutal violence,” as Winter claimed in the council’s 2004 annual report. Cole said it could happen, but it would most likely have to be caused by an act of live violence, such as a high-speed car chase that results in the driver blowing his brains out on TV. “It certainly wouldn’t happen from sex,” he said, adding that to his knowledge nobody has ever provided evidence of permanent trauma from such exposure. Nor had anyone documented that all the topless women in France harmed French children.
Over the years Cole has seen a good many groups of the PTC’s ilk, and it is not unusual, he says, for them to provide a hell-in-a-handbasket scenario and few viable solutions. “A cynical person might say that their financial existence depends on it,” he said. What separates the PTC from other groups is the perception, whether or not it is true, that it has successfully lobbied the FCC to do its bidding. Two members of the PTC’s advisory board, Senator Sam Brownback and Senator Blanche Lincoln, have been instrumental in the passing of bills boosting the maximum indecency fine from $32,500 per incident to $500,000. The bills would allow the FCC both to fine the broadcast personality who uttered the indecency and to revoke the station’s license after three offenses. Apart from their stratospheric price tags, what is so noteworthy about these fines, Cole said, is the FCC’s vagueness about what warrants them—especially in regard to the word “fuck.” While the F word was never permitted on broadcast TV, the FCC tolerated previous incidents so long as they were unscripted and connoted nothing sexual. By reversing the Bono decision, the FCC said the F word was punishable irrespective of context or whether it was an accident, which set off a series of events that people in the broadcast industry describe as “chilling” and a “catch-22.” Last Veterans Day, for instance, 65 network affiliates declined to air Saving Private Ryan, though it had been aired in the past, fearing they’d be fined on account of the foulmouthed soldiers in it. In the end, the FCC didn’t consider those particular “fucks” worthy of fines—nor did the PTC. The skittishness has filtered down to news divisions as well. NBC shelved a special on HIV in the porn industry, and last year local affiliates in Phoenix cut off live coverage of the funeral of Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinal who died in Afghanistan, after his brother said, “Pat isn’t with God, he’s fucking dead!” Some in the broadcast industry see in all of this the end of live TV.
The FCC will not return phone calls about the PTC, nor will the companies the PTC claims to have pressured into dropping sponsorship of offending shows. The networks will not comment about the Parents Television Council either, except to say off the record that the PTC’s real agenda is to remove all programming that personally offends it until there is nothing left to watch but Christians and kittens and to dismiss as laughable Winter’s claims that he has tried to work with them to provide family-friendly programming. Executives at Fox and CBS say they have never heard of Tim Winter and that the only time they are contacted by the PTC is when someone from the council calls to announce that it’s about to publicly condemn one of their shows or to hand out the PTC “seal of approval,” as Winter recently did to a producer of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. But the degree to which the networks are disturbed can be seen in the fact that in May, NBC, CBS, and Fox pooled their money to start an organization called TV Watch that advocates the use of the V-chip and other content descriptors and, in a page stolen from the PTC, appointed as its director a former Bush aide named Jim Dyke, who calls himself a conservative Republican who loves Desperate Housewives and who doesn’t want prudes or the government anywhere near his remote control. Other members include Grover Norquist, head of the ultraconservative Americans for Tax Reform, and Jeff Jarvis, a former TV Guide writer who identifies himself as a Christian who teaches Sunday school but who likes Howard Stem. TV Watch is betting on the fear among conservatives that the only thing worse than smut in the living room is the government itself.
IN JUNE I VISITED the PTC’s East Coast offices, which are housed in the Media Research Center complex in Alexandria, Virginia, along with all the other spin-offs the MRC has created over the years. These include the Cybercast News Service, which Bozell designed to provide an antidote to the lies of the Left by reporting only stories that are true. Last year, for instance, CNS broke the story that Saddam Hussein did, in fact, possess weapons of mass destruction. There is also the Free Market Project, which monitors biases against the free enterprise system, one of which is the media’s hostility to the fast-food industry in its reporting on childhood obesity And for those parties beleaguered by the left-wing press, the MRC offers the Conservative Communications Center, a media-consulting firm devoted to helping conservatives better package their message.
I had hoped to interview some of the TV watchers about their jobs but was told that they were too busy watching TV, and so all I could do was walk past their bank of cubicles and watch them watching. From behind they seemed young, and some of them had a lot of stuffed animals and books by Bozell on their shelves. The council’s research director, Melissa Caldwell, showed me around. One of the reasons she came to the PTC, she said, is that a little girl she babysat in college told everyone at school that she wanted to be a prostitute when she grew up after seeing the movie Pretty Woman. When the tour was over, Caldwell took me down the hallway past Bozell’s office and showed me the PTC’s library of videotapes. There were rows and rows of them on movable floor-to-ceiling shelves. Caldwell said there were 15,000 to date and that the PTC was trying to raise money to transfer them to DVD. Looking at the sheer volume of the archives, one could not help marveling at the undertaking and wondering what it was all for. I asked Caldwell, and she said it was imperative, since the council was the nation’s authority on television content, to maintain the library, particularly if the FCC ever needed documentation for complaints. After that, I was accompanied back out through the building by a representative of the council’s PR firm, Creative Response Concepts, which is best known for its Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against John Kerry
It is possible that the PTC’s tapes will soon be used as evidence in court. One unforeseen result of these new fines is that the networks will no longer write them off as a cost of doing business and will surely appeal them. The 20 CBS affiliates that aired the Janet Jackson incident and were collectively fined $550,000 are appealing the FCC’s decision. Fox is appealing its $1.2 million fine for the episode of Married by America, included in the PTC’s “TV’s Worst Clips 2005,” featuring the whipped cream and the strippers. If the fines aren’t rescinded by the FCC, the networks will argue for a clearer definition of indecency in court. Not since the 1978 case brought on by George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine has the issue been revisited. If that happens, it will no doubt yield a new round of excellent sound bites.
In the meantime, Jeffrey Cole says that television viewing among children is actually down and that they are spending more time online. He, too, has shifted the focus of his studies to the Internet. “One of the things I like to do from time to time is sit down at the keyboard and pretend like I’m a six-year-old boy who doesn’t know how to use the Internet but is looking for sex,” he said. ‘And within five seconds I always find it. I’m talking hard-core pornography Bestiality and kiddie porn. The question is, What’re you going to do about that?”
A few weeks after my first interview with Winter, I called him to see if his efforts against Carl’s Jr. had had any results, and he said that they had and that he was very excited about it. “The ads are only airing late at night now,” he said. “But mostly they’ve gone to the Internet. The company just released their quarterly numbers, and their same-store sales were practically flat, which shows the ad was a failure.” Then I asked him why, if all these things bothered the PTC so much, it never suggested to its membership that they turn off their televisions, and he said, “That would be like telling Erin Brockovich, ‘If you don’t like chromium six in your drinking water, move somewhere else.'”