The Wall Street Journal recently put together an E-mail debate on the subject of whether the FCC should regulate violence on television. Former FCC commissioner Gloria Tristani was selected for the pro-regulation side, and Rene Balcer, the head writer of "Law and Order," was recruited as the anti-regulation voice. It's instructive to follow Balcer's arguments, not only for what they say, but also for what they say about people like Balcer who advance them.
Balcer immediately began by chiding parents for not having the brains to figure out how to program their DVD players, let alone the vaunted V-chip technology, and sneered at Tristani that "I know you may not want facts to intrude in this discussion." But then Balcer claimed TV writers and executives "police ourselves." That's where his alleged reverence for facts abandoned him.
He stated "it goes without saying that anyone who cares about kids wants to protect them from disturbing images. That's true of everyone I'm involved with in my industry. Everything is scrutinized for violent content not only by the standards department but also by the creative people who create and control the content."
But Balcer also knows this little truth: even if every parent implemented V-chip technology, it wouldn't work. Much of the hyperviolent programming would not be blocked because it cannot be blocked, thanks to his industry. "Any inconsistency in the ratings reflects the difficulty in defining what constitutes violent programming," Balcer claims. But he is either utterly ignorant of his industry - so why is he speaking for it? - or he's flat-out lying.
In the fifth study of its kind from the Parents Television Council, it's still obvious that Hollywood knows what constitutes shocking content - and they're in love with shock, so much so that they are actually refusing to use the content descriptors that would allow V-chip blocking.
Two-thirds of the shows reviewed by PTC analysts containing potentially offensive content during the November and February "sweeps" periods lacked one or more of the appropriate content descriptors: 63 percent of shows with sexual content didn't have the "S," 54 percent of shows with steamy sexual dialogue didn't have the "D'," 44 percent of shows containing foul language didn't draw the "L," and 42 percent of shows containing violence didn't carry the "V."
Balcer maintains that violence is hard to define. On some shows, sure. On most, it's not. Let's look at one new example from May's season finales, in this case, the CBS naval-detective drama "NCIS" on May 22. A man serving as a "body packer" who has ingested packets of an undefined white powdery drug (let's guess cocaine) gets in an accident at the airport. At the hospital, he begins to panic that the packets have ruptured, and he dies of an overdose.
His young addicted sister and an Irish pimp/drug dealer are there trying to retrieve the drugs. One of the naval detectives and his girlfriend, a doctor, are taken hostage at gunpoint in the morgue and ordered to cut the corpse open. The scene moves from the violent and explicit to the completely stomach-churning.
The doctor makes an incision and pulls out the dead man's intestines. She holds them up to the sister and says "Do you want this?" Then she cuts the intestines open to let the powdery drugs spill all over the floor. The pimp attacks, so the doctor stabs him with a scalpel, and he drops his gun. The detective grabs the gun, shoots past the pimp, says "next one's in your ear," and forces the pimp to surrender.
But the scene's not done. "Oh God," the detective says, as he watches the dead man's sister snorting the drugs out of her brother's sliced-open intestines, blood and gore all over her face.
Incredibly, CBS didn't tag this episode with a "V" label. So much for Hollywood's devotion to self-discipline. But the most irresponsible part of all of this is the program's slot on the schedule: 8 pm Eastern, 7 pm Central time - the first hour of prime time, the family hour.
Balcer arrogantly concluded his E-mail debate by sniping that "I don't think there's much any industry can do to counter Congress' natural inclination to attack straw men, especially in an election cycle." That entire argument is itself a straw man, and he knows it - as do the 75 percent of Americans demanding greater enforcement of federally mandated decency standards.