April 05, 2004

A Fond Look Back at the Television Code of 1951

Jeff Jarvis is doing an excellent job following the FCC's attack on free speech for broadcast. His latest "Daily Stern" report points out the inconsistencies between FCC Chairman Michael Powell's previous statements on broadcast speech regulation and his current stance (The Daily Stern: Sayings of Chairman Powell).

More interestingly, however, Jeff is ripping apart the old, voluntary US Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters (The Daily Stern: The Code). The "Code" was the set of ethical guidelines established in the early days of television for United States television broadcasters, but was abolished in the 1980s. The reason Jeff brings it up again is because the FCC is now pushing broadcasters (and if Commissioner Michael Copps has his way, cable and satellite channels) to adopt a brand new set of "voluntary" guidelines. Many aspects of the old code seem laughable now, but which will broadcasters readopt if pushed hard enough by political pressure? Fifty years from now, which aspects of a new code will look laughably quaint? Some examples of the old code with Jeff's comments:

Attacks on religion and religous faiths are not allowed. Reverence is to mark any mention of the name of God, His attributes and powers.... [Clergy] portrayed in their callings are vested with the dignity of their office and under no circumstances are to be held up to ridicule.
So The Code is explicitly trying to proselytize the nation. And it won't allow us to make fun of, oh, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, or hundreds of kiddie-diddling priests.
Posted by Ernest at 12:45 PM
Exhibitions of fortune-telling, astrology, phrenology, palm-reading, and numerology are acceptable only when required by a plot...
So much for Crossing Over with John Edward.
Law enforcement shall be upheld, and the officers of the law are to be portrayed with respect and dignity.
Unless they rob, steal, or beat up people for no reason. OK, destroy the Rodney King tape.
It is the responsibility of a television broadcaster to make available to the community as part of a well-balanced program schedule adequate opportunity for religious presentations....A charge for television time to churches and religous bodies is not recommended.
'Nuff said.

See Jeff's post for many more gems, but here are a few more that Jeff didn't have time to go through:

Sex crimes and abnormalities are generally unacceptable as program material.

Goodbye, Law & Order: SVU. Adios, Guinness Book of World Records television series.

The use of gambling devices or scenes necessary to the development of plot or as appropriate background is acceptable only when presented with discretion and in moderation, and in a manner which would not excite interest in, or foster, betting nor be instructional in nature

Well, the World Series of Poker is right out. I'm not so sure about Las Vegas, either.

I wonder if the new guidelines will take as much care with commercials as the old ones do:

Advertising messages should be presented with courtesy and good taste; disturbing or annoying material should be avoided...


The advertising of beer and wines is acceptable only when presented in the best of good taste and discretion, and is acceptable subject to federal and local laws.

How many beer commercials are in good taste? How many of the funniest, best remembered beer commercials are in good taste?

The advertising of fortune-telling, occultism, spiritualism, astrology, phrenology, palm-reading, numerology, mind-reading or character-reading is not acceptable.

Miss Cleo, this means you.

The advertising of tip sheets, race track publications, or organizations seeking to advertise for the purpose of giving odds or promoting betting or lotteries is unacceptable.


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