Television Censorship Comparison
Television Censorship: A Comparison between the United States and the United Kingdom
Since television became official in the 1930s, there have always been geographical disparities regarding to what degree different countries view television content as objectionable based on moral, religious or political criteria. The process of preventing this inappropriate content from reaching audiences is known as censorship, but blocking all unacceptable material from television is seen as a violation of freedom of expression.
However, although censorship is a heavily debated topic around the world, each country has its own regulations and policies that vary significantly. In this comparative analysis, I will examine the different views on censorship and inappropriate content in the United States and the United Kingdom. First I will discuss the current regulations and censorship issues in the United States, as well as programs and content that have been deemed inappropriate.
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Then, I will elucidate the censorship regulations in the United Kingdom, and discuss a recent television issue that sparked controversy over lackadaisical censorship policies. To finish, I will compare and contrast the two countries views on censorship, with an emphasis on why the United States and the United Kingdom have different perceptions about the degree of regulations necessary in their country.
The United States
In the United States, censorship and other broadcasting policy-related issues are handled by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC “is an independent United States government agency, directly responsible to Congress. The FCC was established by the Communications Act of 1934 and is charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. The FCC’s jurisdiction covers the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. possessions” (“About the FCC”).
In the United States, obscene, indecent and profane broadcasts are taken very seriously, and based on the severity of their context, can be punishable by law. According to the FCC, enforcement actions by means of warnings, monetary fines or revoking channel licenses can be issued after a complaint is filed and a violation is confirmed. “It is a violation of federal law to air obscene programming at any time.
It is also a violation of federal law to air indecent programming or profane language during certain hours,” which includes any content between 6am and 10pm (“Obscene, Indecent, and Profane Broadcasts”). However, many people and organizations feel that the First Amendment of the Constitution, defending freedom of speech and expression, is in direct violation by the FCC’s enforcement of censorship.
On the opposing side of the FCC are groups united against censorship regulations, claiming that censorship is an infringement of the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech and expression. The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) is a group of 50 non-profit organizations throughout the nation such as the American Ethical Union (AEU) and the National Communication Association (NCA) who “educate the public and policy makers about threats to free expression; mobilize them to take action to oppose censorship and assist in those efforts; facilitate communications between local activists and national organizations; and devise new educational, advocacy, and media strategies to create a more hospitable environment for free speech and artistic freedom” (“Mission Statement”).
The NCAC believes that a healthy, functional democracy is defined by freedom of communication, and the inability to communicate “is fatal to moral, artistic and intellectual growth” (“Mission Statement”). All groups united against censorship believe that it represents an unreasonable amount of power and dictatorship over the minds and intellectual capacity of all people.
However, the FCC has encountered many severe censorship issues in recent years concerning public broadcasts with inappropriate content. February 1, 2004 will forever be remembered not for an exciting Super Bowl game, but for Janet Jackson’s live “wardrobe malfunction” on CBS in front of millions of football fans. CBS owner Viacom was fined $550,000 for the half-time show broadcast, which the FCC declared was “in apparent violation of the broadcast indecency standard” (Lehrer).
After the Janet Jackson incident occurred, the FCC began imposing greater fines for programs that show indecent, profane or obscene content (“Remote Control: Indecency Legislation Raises Fines and Fears”). In December of 2004, the FCC fined 111 television stations that broadcasted the CBS show “Without a Trace” for a record $3.6 million, which suggested that teenagers were involved in a sexual orgy. “CBS defended the ‘Without a Trace’ episode, saying the episode contained ‘an important and socially relevant storyline warning parents to exercise greater supervision of their teenage children’” (Bosman).
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Since then, many other television shows have been fined for indecency, which has led to the detriment of station programming because stations are worried about being charged. This string of massive fines given to inappropriate airings has led broadcasters to self-censor their programs using five-second delays; especially on entertainment, sport and sexually explicit television shows (“Remote Control: Indecency Legislation Raises Fines and Fears”).
The United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) is in charge of regulating all of the private commercial channels, including iTV, Five and Channel 4. Ofcom was first established as the overseer of communications industries by the Office of Communications Act 2002, combining the responsibilities of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Authority, and the Director General of Communications into one regulating group (“Statutory Duties and Regulatory Principles”). Ofcom’s responsibilities include:
“Ensuring the optimal use of the electro-magnetic spectrum; ensuring that a wide range of electronic communications services - including high speed data services - is available throughout the UK; ensuring a wide range of TV and radio services of high quality and wide appeal; maintaining plurality in the provision of broadcasting; applying adequate protection for audiences against offensive or harmful material; and applying adequate protection for audiences against unfairness or the infringement of privacy” (“Statutory Duties and Regulatory Principles”).
According to the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, multiple sections were established to set proper standards for television broadcasting. Two codes related to the censorship of inappropriate material are: to prevent harm to children under age 18, and to avert offensive or harmful material from being broadcasted. Section One - Protecting the Under-Eighteens states: “Material that might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of people under eighteen must not be broadcast.
Children must also be protected by appropriate scheduling from material that is unsuitable for them” (“The Ofcom Broadcasting Code”). Section Two - Harm and Offence asserts: “In applying generally accepted standards broadcasters must ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context. Such material may include, but is not limited to, offensive language, violence, sex, sexual violence, humiliation, distress, violation of human dignity, discriminatory treatment or language (“The Ofcom Broadcasting Code”). Freedom of expression and responsibility are considered hand in hand by the Code, which is why each programmer must obey regulations that apply to each section.
Although Ofcom controls the private channels in the United Kingdom, the government-owned stations such as the BBC have their own indecency regulations. The BBC has a more relaxed policy for indecency, which is know as the Watershed policy. “From 9pm the TV watershed helps parents protect children from unsuitable material. In all but exceptional circumstances, programmes before 9pm are suitable for general audiences including children.
From 9pm they are progressively suitable only for adults” (“Decency and the TV watershed”). The BBC and other public broadcasting stations in the United Kingdom rely on parent support and program warnings to prevent children from exposure to indecent, profane or obscene content, not on censorship rules and expensive fines. In the United Kingdom, the lack of universal policies and regulations on censoring inappropriate content of all television channels shows the overall laissez-faire attitude toward television censorship.
In general, the United Kingdom fines programs and stations for going over television program limits or blatantly lying on television, but does not often penalize stations for showing morally, politically or religiously indecent content. However, there is extremely limited information on television programs that have been in violation of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code or BBC regulations that have been fined for airing inappropriate material.
In one case, an episode of Jerry Springer - The Opera was brought to court by Christian evangelists trying to prosecute Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director general. According to Stephen Green, National Director of the Christian Voice, the show on BBC2 “featured scenes depicting Christ wearing a nappy and swearing had ‘clearly crossed the blasphemy threshold’ ” (Petre). However, the show was not censored on BBC2 or prosecuted for blasphemous content after being brought to court.
Mark Mullins, who represents Stephen Green and the Christian Voice, said “No prosecution for blasphemy can be brought against the BBC. That is tantamount to saying that blasphemy is of little, if any, relevance in today’s society” (Petre). Compared to the United Kingdom, whose regulations allow for greater rein of freedom of speech and expression, the United States has much harsher regulations about censorship and blocking harmful content from the airwaves.
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The United States and the United Kingdom both deal with complaints from television viewers on a daily basis; however, the viewers in the United Kingdom complain there is not enough censorship, while the viewers in the United States feel there is too much censorship.
According to mediawatch-uk, an organization that campaigns for decency and accountability in the media, they believe that television has become toxic to viewers, and no longer represents reality or enforces censorship of inappropriate material. “Violence, sex and bad language is so common on TV…However, Parliament has approved laws which say that programmes must meet with ‘generally accepted standards’ and that the public should be protected from ‘offensive and harmful material’. This law is being ignored and viewers’ rights are being overridden in the quest for ratings, audience share and controversy” (“mediawatch-uk”).
Many organizations like mediawatch-uk have been established to apply greater pressure on the regulating bodies like Ofcom and BBC, convinced they have not responded sufficiently to the public concern. On the opposing side, the United States has many organizations like the NCAC that argue regulations set on American television are too severe, and do not allow for the freedom to exercise the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment.
According to Stephen Rohde, a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment concerns, “It is not in the ‘public interest’ for certain prudish groups to dictate what the American people can see on television, when the material is constitutionally protected and violates no laws.
Such groups remain free to exercise their constitutional rights to publicly condemn any programming they find offensive and to press the ‘OFF’ button on the remote” (“Censorship on Television: When Crying “Indecency” Goes Too Far”). Although television has become a highly advanced medium in recent years, there are extreme differences between the enforcement of censorship regulations in the United Kingdom and the United States. Censorship is a central issue in television, but it is nearly impossible for either country to agree on what constitutes inappropriate material, and how it should be dealt with to satisfy the majority of viewers.
Both the United Kingdom and the United States would benefit from finding a balanced medium by setting strict censorship laws, while still allowing for freedom of speech and expression. During certain hours of the day, especially after 9pm, parents and their children should be highly advised that there may be inappropriate content in the television material. Therefore, censorship should be enforced while children are more likely to watch television, and more relaxed when the audience becomes more mature at night.
However, because the United Kingdom has different regulatory bodies governing the public and private television channels, they should agree on certain guidelines to avoid censorship issues, as well as complaints from unsatisfied viewers. The United States should relax their policies on censorship by not broadcasting harmful programs during the day, or on channels with consistent adolescent viewers.
Since the biggest concern overriding the censorship problems is obscene, profane or indecent material affecting children, their moral and religious beliefs should be taken into account when establishing regulatory principles. Around the world, countries have different views on the amount of censorship necessary to protect their audiences from harmful television.
The United Kingdom and the United States are just two examples of very dissimilar regulatory systems, based on how their country feels censorship is necessary. In the end, it is the balance of appropriateness and inappropriateness, freedom of expression and freedom of censorship, that must take into account all age groups, moral views and the impact of television on its viewers.
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