Brent Bozell takes no prisoners, makes no apologies

Protesting indecency on TV, he goes after `arrogant industry'

Media

July 03, 2005|By Glenn Garvin | Glenn Garvin,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - It's a little like hearing Cotton Mather confide that he has a thing for witches. Brent Bozell, The Man Hollywood Loves To Hate, the TV filth-fighter and smut-smasher par excellence, the arch-nemesis of Dennis Franz's rear end and Janet Jackson's nipple, has a confession: He's a secret fan of The Simpsons.

That is, the Fox cartoon where dads cavort with strippers, kiddie-show hosts rob convenience stores, and gay characters marry one another. The same one that Bozell demanded the FCC bust last year for an episode in which a character, protesting a cut in school arts funding, carried a sign that read: DON'T CUT OFF MY PIANISSIMO.

"I think The Simpsons is hilarious," Bozell says a little sheepishly. "I love The Simpsons. But every once in a while, it just hits you right in the face. ... It would be a hilarious show without it, so why did you do it?"

To the FCC, whipped into a frenzy by the deluge of e-mailed complaints from Bozell's watchdog group, to the network executives cowed by his rages into pixellating everything from old women's cleavage to cartoon babies' bottoms, and even - perhaps most of all - to his million-member TV legion of decency, the Parents Television Council, it is liable to be a shock that Bozell consorts with the enemy.

With those over-sexed, under-disciplined Friends, for instance. Last year, when 51 million other Americans were saying tearful goodbyes to the show as it ended its decade-long run, Bozell was filing an FCC complaint over an episode that referred to a birthday cake decorated with a frosted penis. "Patently offensive," Bozell called Friends then.

Now, though, he says he may even have shed a tear or two himself.

"It's unquestionable that it was a very terrific, extremely high-quality show," Bozell says. "And yet so much of it also was really pushing the envelope. So can I say 51 million people are wrong? No, no, I can't say that. But even of those 51 million, I suspect, even the fans of Friends would also acknowledge that Friends could go a little overboard."

That's considerably milder rhetoric than you see in the newsletters and press releases that come smoking out of Bozell's Parents Television Council. There, the cop show The Shield is an "assault on decency." MTV is "blatantly selling smut to children." The fast-food chains using an ad with a wetted-down Paris Hilton are "forcing American families to digest their filth."

Avalanche of complaints

The FCC, which logged just 111 complaints about indecent broadcasts in 2000, received 1.4 million last year - many of them from viewers armed with transcripts provided by PTC's squadron of smut detectors, who monitor hundreds of hours of television a week for objectionable material.

The avalanche of complaints played a major role in the record $7.9 million in fines slapped on broadcasters last year by the FCC. Meanwhile, PTC-organized advertiser boycotts drove dozens of sponsors away from risque cable shows. Congress began to pay attention, taking up legislation to boost indecency fines from $32,500 to $500,000 and to extend FCC jurisdiction to cable TV.

"This group is having a real impact in Washington," says Adam Thierer, director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at the Progress & Freedom Foundation. "They are coming to have the equivalent of a heckler's veto over a lot of decisions by the FCC and Congress regarding broadcast content."

Fear and loathing of the PTC in Hollywood is so great that hardly anybody is willing to discuss the group on the record. `'Why are you writing about them?" groaned an executive at one network under frequent PTC attack for raunchy content.

The few network officials who will talk about Bozell or the PTC say their reports conflate innuendo and suggestion to produce an exaggerated picture of raunch on television. Those frosting private parts that triggered the PTC complaint about Friends, for instance, were never shown, only talked about. And the 3,056 instances of nudity and 2,483 dirty words that the group's researchers meticulously noted in a much-quoted report on a week of MTV programming were all bleeped or blurred by the network.

Bozell is unfazed. "We're called a lot of things," he declares. "What we're not called is what we are - a massive, broadbased voice of the public. ... We have over a million members from all walks of life. But the problem is that this is an extraordinarily arrogant industry that has ultimately never cared what the public thought and is actually offended that the public is criticizing it."

Not a numbers game

He scoffs at claims that the PTC demands for government intervention amount to censorship.

"Those airwaves are not owned by the networks that use them," Bozell insists. "They are owned by the public. The networks enter into a legal compact when they use those airwaves, wherein they pledge to abide by community standards on decency."

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