Sunday, February 27, 2005

Hollywood Bets on Chris Rock's 'Indecency'

The New York Times
February 27, 2005
Hollywood Bets on Chris Rock's 'Indecency'

THE total box office for all five best-picture nominees on Sunday's Oscars is so small that their collective niche in the national cultural marketplace falls somewhere between square dancing and non-Grisham fiction. But if this year's Oscars are worthless as a barometer of the broad state of American pop culture, there's much to learn from the hype spun by ABC and the motion picture academy to seduce Americans to watch even if they can't distinguish Clive Owen from Catalina Sandino Moreno. The selling of the Oscar show is the latest indicator of the most telling disconnect in our politics: in the post-Janet Jackson era, "indecency" is gaining in popularity in direct proportion to Washington's campaign to shut indecency down.

Hollywood can read the numbers. Once the feds vowed to smite future "wardrobe malfunctions," the customers started bolting the annual TV franchises where those malfunctions and their verbal counterparts are apt to occur. An award show sanitized of vulgarity and encased in the prophylactic of tape delay is an oxymoron. And so the Golden Globes lost 40 percent of its audience in January on NBC, the Grammys lost 28 percent of its audience this month on CBS. The viewers turned up instead at the competing "Desperate Housewives" on ABC, where S-and-M is the latest item on the carnal menu. Though this year's Super Bowl didn't have to go up against that runaway hit, its born-again family-friendliness also took a ratings toll; the audience in the all-important 18-to-49 demographic fell to an all-time low. The viewers perked up only for a commercial parodying a Washington "Broadcast Censorship Hearing": TiVo reported that the spot's utterly unrevealing "wardrobe malfunction" gag was the most replayed moment from any of the game's ads, much as the Jackson-Timberlake pas de deux that inspired it was the TiVo sensation of the year before.

This is why the people bringing you the Oscars have done everything possible to imply that Sunday's show will be so indecent that even the winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award may let loose with a Dick Cheney expletive. Rather than chase away MTV and its fans from the festivities as the National Football League did after the Jackson fracas, the academy hired as its host Chris Rock, a three-time MTV Music Video Awards M.C. Mr. Rock, as brilliant at P.R. as he is at comedy, ran around giving cheeky interviews making the outrageous charge that the Oscars might have a gay following. Matt Drudge took the bait and assailed the comedian for indecency. Mr. Rock was soiling "the classiest night in Hollywood," he said on Fox News, by taking "a lewd route ... to the gutter."

The motion picture academy's marketers couldn't have said it better themselves. They know a lewd route is the yellow brick road to Nielsen nirvana. Gilbert Cates, the Oscars producer, had already been putting out the message that he opposed the show's tape delay as "dangerous to society." The academy's executive director, Bruce Davis, elaborated to Lola Ogunnaike of The New York Times: "I like to hear that people are nervous, because that means you're more likely to watch." Last Sunday Mr. Rock was billed by Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes" as a "nontraditional host" who is "not afraid to offend" and whose "comedy is still as profane and uncut as ever." Two hours later came the pièce de résistance: Mr. Rock in an Oscar-show promo spot on "Desperate Housewives" fondling the Oscar statuette (in all its gold nudity) and declaring, "You won't believe the halftime show!"

It's all a hoax, of course. ABC has merely shortened last year's seven-second tape delay to five seconds, and viewers already annoyed that the Oscar telecast is pre-empting "Desperate Housewives" may have further reason to complain when they learn that any profane comedy or liberated cleavage will be seen only by the swells at the Kodak Theater. Next year may be another story. In a little noted report in Variety earlier this month, the academy got ABC to forgo a contract stipulation requiring a tape delay in future Oscar shows. Further ratings tumbles ensure that the war against tape delays will be taken up in earnest by media giants eager to preserve their profit centers. Already the networks are mulling a court challenge to the constitutionality of the decades-old Federal Communications Commission decency standards. The rules are so loosey-goosy it's hard to imagine how the networks could lose.

The signs are everywhere that the indecency campaign is failing anyway in the months since "moral values" supposedly became the unofficial law of the land. To see how much so, forget about the liberal Hollywood of Oscar night and examine instead the porn peddlers of the right.

Rupert Murdoch's Fox, always a leader in these hypocrisy sweepstakes, made pious hay out of yanking the second scheduled broadcast of the commercial after its initial Super Bowl appearance. But Fox Sports promptly plastered the "GoDaddy girl" alongside Playboy bunnies and other pinups on its "Funhouse Fox of the Week" Web site, where every adolescent teenager could ogle it to his libido's content. No less a bellwether is the decision of Adelphia, a cable giant known for its refusal to traffic in erotica, to change its image radically now that its moralistic founder and former C.E.O., John Rigas, has been convicted of looting the company. Shortly after President Bush's inauguration Adelphia acknowledged that it is offering XXX, the most hard-core porn, to some subscribers - a cable first, outdoing even the XX porn on Mr. Murdoch's DirecTV in explicitness. "The more X's, the more popular," an Adelphia spokeswoman told The Los Angeles Times.

As Jake Tapper reported on ABC News, Adelphia is a big Republican contributor. Its beneficiaries include Rick Santorum, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania who has likened homosexuality to "man on dog" sex, a specialty item that his campaign donor might yet present some day. Sift through the Center for Responsive Politics' campaign contribution site, and you will also find that Fred Upton, the Republican point man in the Congressional indecency crusade, is one of the many in his party (President Bush among them) raking in contributions from Comcast or its executives. Comcast subscribers are awash in porn. In Mr. Upton's own Kalamazoo district, its pay-per-view networks have offered such hard-core fare as "Young, Fresh & Ripe" and "As Young As They Come No. 8" even as the congressman put the finishing touches on the penalty-enhanced Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005.

Cheering Mr. Upton on is the Parents Television Council, the e-mail factory that Mediaweek magazine credits with as much as 99.9 percent of all indecency complaints to the F.C.C. in 2004. It is also quite a little fount of salacious entertainment in its own right. On its Web site, the organization's tireless "entertainment analysts" compile a list of every naughty word used on television and invite visitors to "Watch the Worst TV Clip of the Week." An archive of past clips - helpfully labeled individually by sin ("gratuitous teen sex," "necrophilia") - is there for your pleasure, with no requirement for the credit card number or membership fee that porn Internet sites use as a roadblock for children.

That politicians and public scolds like these have succeeded in the temporary laundering of live TV shows, and even "Saving Private Ryan," is a symptom of the political moment. It won't last long. The power of the free market, for better or worse, will prevail, and the market tells us that it is still the American way to lament indecency even while gobbling it up. This is the year that Sports Illustrated for the first time published the number for its subscribers to phone if they wanted to skip the swimsuit issue - and almost no one called. Sandra Dee really is dead, and no fire-and-brimstone speeches by James Dobson are going to bring her back.

But that does not mean that the indecency campaign is benign. Even if it barely slows the entertainment industry juggernaut, it inflicts collateral damage elsewhere - whether casting a chill over broadcast news or crippling public broadcasting by inducing it to censor even the language of American troops in a "Frontline" documentary about Iraq. The Parents Television Council may purport to complain about "The Simpsons," which last Sunday presented an episode both sympathetic to same-sex marriage and skeptical of a Bible-thumping minister. ("If you love the Bible so much," Homer asks him, "why don't you marry it?") But that's a game; this organization knows full well it can't lay a finger on Fox or its well-connected proprietor, Mr. Murdoch. The same anti-indecency forces, however, can and did set the stage for the new secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, to go gunning for a far milder evocation of same-sex parents in the children's show "Postcards From Buster" on PBS.

Fresh from sending a cartoon rabbit to the slaughterhouse, Ms. Spellings will figure out ways to discriminate against real-life lesbian moms in other departmental policies that have nothing to do with entertainment. And she's not the only administration official empowered by the decency crusaders to apply censorship to public policy well removed from the TV screen. No sooner were PBS's lesbians sent to the indecency gulag than The Washington Post reported that the Department of Health and Human Services had instructed the presenters of a federally funded conference on suicide prevention this month to remove the words "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual" and "transgender" from the name of a talk heretofore titled "Suicide Prevention Among Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Individuals," thereby rendering it invisible and useless.

At least President Bush is now on tape saying he won't "kick gays." He leaves that to surrogates. It's gay people and teenagers being denied potentially life-saving sex education who ultimately are the real victims of the larger agenda of the decency crusaders, which is not to clean up show business, a doomed mission, but to realize the more attainable goal of enlisting the government to marginalize and punish those who don't adhere to their "moral values." For its part, show business will have no problem fending for itself. My favorite moment in the whole faux Oscar controversy came on a "Today" show segment weighing the Drudge Report blast of Chris Rock. "Still ahead this morning on 'Today,' " said Katie Couric without missing a beat as that report ended, "former teacher Mary Kay Letourneau is planning to marry the student who fathered two of her children." America just can't stop itself from staying tuned.