How The World Compares TV Indecency

By Susan Visakowitz

When U.S. pop star Janet Jackson pulled a stunt during American football's Super Bowl's halftime show this past January that involved the partial baring of her breast, the U.S. communications authority (FCC) and a good segment of the American population went up in arms, declaring it everything from inappropriate to appalling.

Pundits and politicians issued statements, calling for a swift end to "on-air smut," as one FCC commissioner called it, and harsher fines against broadcasters who transmit "indecent material."

The perception among most countries and even from those with similar sensibilities (e.g., Canada) has long been that America is unnecessarily uptight in its stance toward sexuality, nudity, foul language and other forms of so-called "mature content," but not as much for violence.

Several months after the incident, the uproar over what is and what is not acceptable over public airwaves continues to rage on in the U.S., and there have been several unexpected repercussions, including the institution of audio and video tape delays for such broadcasts as the Academy Awards and a new ruling by the FCC that broadens the scope of its indecency enforcement to include profanities, even when used without sexual or excretory overtones. Most recently, radio broadcasting giant Clear Channel dropped Howard Stern, the country's best-known "shock jock," from its stations after the FCC proposed fining the company $495,000 for sexually explicit remarks made on his show.

However, a comparison of the Broadcasting Codes of various democratic countries reveals that, on paper at least, America hardly stands out from the crowd. In fact, U.S. Code sets a fair standard for defining material as indecent.

In the U.K., for example, only non-sexual, relevant nudity is acceptable before 9 p.m., but is mostly to be left for after that hour. Additionally, bad language is not expressly banned from the airwaves, but cannot be used frequently before 9 p.m., or, if it is highly offensive, cannot be used at all before that time. In South Africa, 9 p.m. is also the hour that marks the shift from general programming to adult-oriented content. In New Zealand, while there are no hard and fast rules, nudity and foul language are generally expected to screen only after 8:30 p.m. In Mexico, 8 p.m. is the line drawn between adult programming and programming appropriate for all audiences, with racier material expected to air well after the "watershed" hour. And in Japan, the Broadcasting Code states that the "exposure of a part of the body shall be so handled as not to arouse the feeling of indecency or obscenity."

Considering that the Jackson incident aired only shortly after 8 p.m. (on the East Coast, far earlier in the West), was in no way relevant to the context, and occurred during an event that draws a large and diverse audience, it would be fair to conclude that, going strictly by the letter of the above Codes, the halftime show could have been declared "indecent" in any of the aforementioned countries.

The U.S. Code defines indecency as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs and activities." Such material is confined to airing after 10 p.m. - which, indeed, is a bit later in the evening than in other democratic nations, but not so much so as to represent a drastic divergence in policy. And because the U.S. has a powerful First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, broadcasters technically have more leeway with their content here than anywhere else in the world.

Whether the baring of a breast in a non-sexual context could even pass as a "patently offensive" depiction of a "sexual organ" is still questionable. (As of press time, the FCC had not yet ruled on whether the incident was in fact "indecent" and worthy of action against the broadcaster.)

But none of this stopped the American public from responding to the incident with outrage. Would a similar have event have elicited any sort of response at all in other parts of the world? "Most people would probably [have] laugh[ed]," said Jane Wrightson, chief executive of New Zealand's Broadcasting Standards Authority. "There would almost certainly not have been calls to reprimand broadcasters." She noted that "brief glimpses" of nudity do at times get away with a PG classification, making such material acceptable post-7 PM. Of course, the Jackson reveal happened live and without warning. But Wrightson surmised that, should there have been any complaints by the public, they would have been directed toward "the performer/event organizer itself, as most New Zealanders would tell the difference" and not place blame on the broadcaster.

Ellen Baine, director of programming at Canadian broadcaster CHUM Television, said that in Canada, an event similar to the Jackson Super Bowl stunt would have been "no big deal. We don't blur out nipples in Canada. As far as we know, women have nipples; people are aware of that." Baine went on to add that, in general, there's "really no problem with nudity before 9 p.m., as long as it's not in a sexual context."

Both women pointed out that, in their countries, U.S. cable programs like The Sopranos and Sex and the City - considered quite graphic in the U.S. for their depictions of violence and sex, respectively - air on free TV, albeit with warnings and at a fairly late hour.

In the more conservative Mexico, TV Azteca's Esteban Moctezuma imagined that, while the government may not have been fazed by a similar event, the "private sector" would have been another story. "There's a civil effort here to increase standards of television. And we have a huge challenge, because most people who write and produce for TV think sex and violence are easy ways to get ratings."

Moctezuma added that America is not too strict in the way it defines indecency. "As TV goes to every home and children of all ages see TV at any time, the society has to have a standard as to what can be seen. What is normal for some, can be crude to others."

Even Wrightson admitted that "some New Zealanders would certainly think that U.S. concepts of decency are correct. Some groups here, e.g., religious groups, Pacific Islanders and some Maori, have 'conservative' views on morality and decency issues." But she added that "the overall system" in New Zealand "is fairly heavily weighted towards freedom of expression, mostly with provisos relating more to protection of children rather than 'decency' per se." And Moctezuma reveled that there has never yet been in Mexico a "nationwide scandal" over a racy broadcast.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell remarked at the NAB Summit on Responsible Programming in late March that the debate over the Jackson incident "is not best understood as one about what you can do or cannot do on radio or television. Rather, it is more about whether consumers can rely on reasonable expectations about the range of what they will see on a given program at a given time."

And this is also the position of the U.S. Association of National Advertisers, which, during a recent conference in New York, stated that broadcasters could do anything they liked as long as the sponsors were informed in advance and not surprised.

But with the American politicians still on "high alert" for offensive content, broadcasters are walking on eggshells and refusing to take chances. Scenes that would have been broadcast just a few weeks ago are now being cut - even from programs that air after 10 pm.