NEAL CONAN, Host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. When singer and actor Isaac Hayes announced his decision to leave the popular cartoon show South Park less than two weeks ago, folks wondered what would happen to his character named Chef. Well, the show's writers resolved their dilemma on last night's episode. Chef was hit by lightening, impaled, shot, mauled by a mountain lion, and then, by a grizzly bear.
STAN: We're all here today because Chef has been such an important part of our lives. A lot of us don't agree with the choices Chef has made in the past few days. Some of us feel hurt and confused that he seemed to turn his back on us. But we can't let the events of the last week take away the memories of how much Chef made us smile. I'm gonna remember Chef as the jolly old guy who always broke into song. I'm gonna remember Chef as the guy who gave us advise to live by.
CONAN: Most South Park fans are less upset by the death of a beloved character than by Comedy Central's decision to pull a re-run of an earlier episode of South Park that lampooned Scientology, in general, and Tom Cruise, in particular. They claim the network was strong-armed into self-censorship, a charge that's also come up this week when another network, the WB, announced plans to sanitize one of its new shows for fear of fines from the Federal Communications Commission. If you have questions about the cartoon controversy, the FCC, and self-censorship, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. And joining us here in the studio is David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent. Nice to have you back on the program, David.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Good to be here.
CONAN: Do we know why Comedy Central decided not to replay that episode of centering on Tom Cruise?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, Comedy Central said that it was simply that they decided to run two, sort of, favorite episodes involving the character of Chef, that these were episodes that truly captured what he had been to the series, and therefore, these were the right ones to run. There was a heck of a lot of blog speculation and fans who said, hey, is this a question of simply bowing to concerns about Scientology, you know? Sort of the unwritten, iron-clad law of Hollywood is you don't mess with the Church of Scientology. And certainly representatives of Mr. Hayes put out statements saying, that he was finally had enough with the question of mocking his church. He was himself a Scientologist. And that he took umbrage of that and couldn't participate in good conscious anymore.
CONAN: Yet, there's any, there's a raft of quotations from Isaac Hayes at any other time in the past saying, gee what a wonderful show they, they, no holds barred, they make fun of everybody.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mean, if you're worried about observing niceties, of protocol, decorum, this is not the show for you, as either a viewer or a participant. I mean, my goodness, they, they went after everybody. And if you think, you know, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are not going to do that, they're not, they're gonna leave anybody untouched, you're just wrong.
CONAN: Yeah, that Isaac Hayes must've been shocked, shocked to hear that satire was going on.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mean, obviously, anybody has the right to decide not to participate any further, even in something they're involved with. But this is a show all about puncturing everything.
CONAN: Interesting that many, again talking about the blogs, many of the fans of the show said, they would boycott Tom Cruises' new movie Mission: Impossible III, which comes out, what I guess in a couple of weeks. And until, Comedy Central re-ran the South Park episode in question, this would normally seem to be an empty threat, but somebody did notice that the demographic of the people who watch South Park is exactly the demographic that M:I-3 is looking for.
FOLKENFLIK: And it's worth pointing out that the studios for M:I-3 is Paramount, that the channel for South Park is Comedy Central, both of them are owned by the entertainment media conglomerate VIACOM. And you know, it's never a mistake to bet on the idea that corporate influences reach past, you know, certain company borders, that is, that if they're sister corporations, they may do things in concert. At the same time, Tom Cruise has out-and-out denied that he had anything to do with the fact that they dropped a certain kind of anti- Scientology episode. He himself, obviously, one of the most famous Scientologists of all.
CONAN: And we'll have more on that. Certainly, people want to call in on it. 800-989-8255. But I wanted to ask you about another example of, well this is admitted self-censorship. The WB said that it would, for fear of fines from the FCC, re-edit some scenes in an upcoming show called The Bedford Diaries, over the objections of the program's creator.
FOLKENFLIK: That's right. The program's creator is a guy name Tom Fontana. Listeners may remember him from NBC's gritty Baltimore police show, Homicide. He was one of the major producers on that. He also did an even edgier show called Oz, about prison life for HBO for a time there. He was asked by the WB to delete parts of two scenes, one of which showed two young, college women kissing, on a dare in a bar, the other apparently involving a woman removing her jeans. He said he wouldn't do it. The networks, you know, own standards officials went and did it after him, with his acquiescence. He said he understood they felt they had to do that after the decision earlier this month by the FCC to levy nearly four million dollars in fines over a series of complaints about indecency. And the network said upfront, look, after these rulings earlier this month, we feel we have to do this.
FOLKENFLIK: It's interesting, the word censorship itself implies the government is coming down and doing this. In this case, it's not what happened. The channel itself, the WB decided it wouldn't do this. Mr. Fontana, it clearly feels this impinges on his artistic expression, but you can make a counter- case, that is, that there are many people in America who are concerned about what kinds of things come over broadcast television. The WB is a free station, it's sort of a mini-network that's going to be merged into another one later this year. And there's all kinds of edgier fare available to people. If they want to watch basic cable, you know, channels like FX offer awfully gritty shows like The Shield and Nip/Tuck, about plastic surgeons and their foibles. You can get premium channels like HBO, Showtime, The Movie Channel, that show extremely edgy and sexually-charged content, and you can get pay-per-view, where almost anything goes. Online, you can get pretty much anything you're willing to search for, so, it's an interesting time in that things are available to people. It's not as though the fact that this isn't available on free television means you can't get it, it means that its not available on these extremely broadcasting, as opposed to niche outlets.
CONAN: Well, one of the things, presumably, the FCC was trying to encourage in levying those stiff fines against CBS and various other outlets was to get broadcast networks to be more careful about this. And that's exactly what the WB is doing.
FOLKENFLIK: Oh, I don't think there's any doubt. Kevin Martin, whose been there just for a relatively short stretch as chairman of the FCC has made it an explicit, you know, aim that he's going to respond in a fairly quick, relatively quick manner to complaints about indecency, and that he intends to make this sort of a signature issue for him. This does have sort of the effect, Mr. Fontana, the producer, used the phrase chilling, which, you know, invokes questions of free speech, it does tend to affect how stations want to go about doing what they're doing. It does tend to, I think, affect the climate in which broadcast channels will operate. You know, it is worth noting, the fines we're talking about may be four million dollars, is pretty much a fraction of a speck of a mite of dust on something like the Viacom Company. You know, the WB is owned jointly by Time-Warner and Tribune Company. These are major, multi- billion dollar enterprises. For them, it's not that much money, but it is sort of a warning sign that this is an issue.
FOLKENFLIK: One thing I will mention, like, for example, for rappers, you know, when they were, people would bleep them out on radio and there'd be a debate about this, it tended to help them in terms of giving them some publicity. This may create some heat over some of these shows which are seen as racy.
CONAN: Well, one thing the WB is doing is saying the unedited version is going to be available to viewers on its website. You know, is that a plus in saying, you know, gee, if you want to see something really edgy, you've got to go to the web? Or is it, you know, they had to take a risk there, don't they?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, certainly as they seek new kinds of viewers and consumers online, I think it can only drive people to that website, when they say the things that we couldn't show you here on television. And, you know, in a multi- media world, it may be that you're able to see different kinds of, different versions of television shows through, you know, podcasted or downloadable versions.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. And we'll go to Joan. Joan's calling us from Milwaukee.
JOAN: I heard something in the last couple of weeks on a Wisconsin Public Radio program that there are some fines pending even for public television. Something on a documentary on the blues?
CONAN: Yes. There were...
FOLKENFLIK: That's correct.
CONAN: Part of that set of fines against...
JOAN: I'd like to know who's being fined on public television, because I'll raise Cain about that.
CONAN: Hmm. David Folkenflik?
FOLKENFLIK: I don't have the names in front of me, but there was indeed a documentary, you know, distributed by PBS and run on public television shows in which one of the Jazz greats and performers talked and he, you know, he used a series of vulgarities, sort of in an enthusiastic way, to talk about it. The producers made the decision to sort of air the comments without bleeping or without deletion. They were audible, it was done during regular programming time and prime time, and the FCC decided that this was indecent, and that it shouldn't be allowed. They were in fact fined for this. And this was one of the episodes in the recent fines that drew in some ways the most outrage from certain kinds of artistic and free-speech advocates.
CONAN: And the fines would be levied against the television station rather than PBS. It's the license holder of whichever...
FOLKENFLIK: That's correct.
CONAN: ...television station somebody complained about.
FOLKENFLIK: That's correct. And in fact, that's the way in which sometimes seemingly relatively small amounts can matter, particularly for smaller stations. Because it can make them wary of being able to meet budgets if they're going to get hit. You know sometimes stations have been fined for running re-runs of shows.
FOLKENFLIK: You know, you can get hit more than once for this sort of thing.
CONAN: Yeah, in fact it was the re-run of a Without A Trace episode which got CBS into trouble. And, one other thing, I think fines are still pending, we're expecting announcements, I guess, any day now, about fines for radio stations.
FOLKENFLIK: That's, I think that's right. Yeah.
CONAN: Joan, thanks very much.
JOAN: You're welcome.
CONAN: Okay. Appreciate it. Let's turn now to Jackie. Jackie's with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
JACKIE: I was wondering, what is the difference between the whole Larry Flint Supreme Court ruling and this? I mean, isn't freedom of speech somewhat acceptable anymore? Are we being coat tailed into believing whatever the FCC tells us? This is a pay channel, it's not like it's accessible to anybody.
CONAN: No, not necessarily. And of course, Larry Flint published Hustler Magazine, which is a print publication and somewhat different. But go ahead David Folkenflik.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, a print publication and a pornographic one. You know, it's a very interesting question about free speech and the public airwaves. If you think about the FCC, it was founded sort of to regulate how the airwaves were handled. It's considered a public good. And getting one of these licenses is sort of tantamount, particularly for the for-profit sector, to print money. And so, in exchange you sort of agree to certain things. There are restrictions over what kinds of material you can broadcast at certain times of day. As there's been sort of the evolution of the maturity of the broadcast world of radio and television, there've been arguments that say, hey, why is it that a television station doing news should have any less freedom of speech, any less of the embodiment of the principles of First Amendment, then a newspaper? And that's created some very interesting tensions. And as you think about it, why should it be only news? Why isn't it entertainment? Why should there be more protection for a play on Broadway than for something done, you know, at ten o'clock at night?
CONAN: And the answer many people give is that, in fact, these television programs come into your home while you have to buy Hustler Magazine, or the New York Times, for that matter.
FOLKENFLIK: Or go to a play.
FOLKENFLIK: I mean, and this intention in terms of how you conceive of what a broadcast is.
CONAN: Jackie, thanks very much.
JACKIE: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with NPR's David Folkenflik about controversies at Cartoon, at Comedy Central, excuse me, and the WB. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Shane on the line. Shane's with us from Nashville.
SHANE: Yes, I was just wondering if there were any definitions by the FCC to, so that they know when they're making these shows that they are going to get fined. Is there any set rules, or, you know, is it just arbitrary?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, I don't have the chapter and verse in front of me, and you can go to FCC.gov, which is the agency's formal website where they offer certain sort of guidelines for what they're doing. And a lot of times it's based on past decisions. I mean, one of the things the FCC doesn't do is tell you ahead of time whether or not something's going to be okay. You kind of, lawyers look to interpret as they do for a Supreme Court decisions in the legal arena, you know, lawyers for media broadcasters look for previous decisions and try to tease out, okay, is this word going to be a problem? Is this action going to be a problem? I think we now can safely conclude that if you bare a breast at the halftime of the Super Bowl...
CONAN: You're going to be in trouble.
FOLKENFLIK: ...you're out of luck.
FOLKENFLIK: And this is the way they tease it out, they look through you, you know, many of these past rulings.
CONAN: Thanks Shane. Let's talk to Stephanie. Stephanie with us from Grandville, Ohio.
STEPHANIE: Hello. Thank you for taking my call.
STEPHANIE: We have not had cable in our home for six years because we have children and years ago decided that the content was just too sexually explicit on normal TV shows. And at first, I thought we were kind of weird and people would think we were crazy, and I've been surprised how many people I have met who tell me the same thing. Of different religious faiths, not religious people, just, they think TV is bad for their kids. This summer we bought a house that has an antenna, and we were like, yeah, we can watch PBS. But as a consequence we have the three networks and we have once again been shocked and disgusted at the things that are just on the network television. And whenever I bring it up to anyone, to a lot of people, they act like there's nothing you can do. But the fact that the FCC is actually doing something gives me hope, and I would ask your guest, is there hope? Is it worth writing a letter or sending an email, saying, hey, I don't want this stuff coming into my house affecting my children? It needs to be cleaned up. And who should I contact?
FOLKENFLIK: You know, I think the FCC welcomes individual complaints about specific shows shown on specific stations. I think they kind of need something specific to react to. But that, it sounds to me as though they are response, or are trying to be responsive to that. A lot of the fines that they've levied have been in reaction to sort of organized protests. There are a number of particularly culturally conservative groups that have geared up and sort of, you know, the complaints have come pouring in about very specific episodes, and that seems to have had some effect. But, you know, individual listeners at times, or viewers, excuse me, at times can also trigger that. You know, again, they want you to define it. There are certain ways in which they define obscenity, certain ways in which they define indecency, certain ways in which they interpret statues that have been written to guide them on that. You know, you're welcome to make your complaints to them. That's where it gets done.
CONAN: In terms of a broader statement, Stephanie, you might want to try to write to your member of Congress. Congress, of course, tells the FCC, or can tell the FCC, to some degree, what to do.
STEPHANIE: Um, yes, and not to sound apathetic, just hopeless, I'm not extremely confident in politicians doing much effectively.
CONAN: You're not alone in that either, I don't think, Stephanie.
STEPHANIE: Well, I thank you very much.
CONAN: Appreciate the phone call.
CONAN: And let's see if we can go to Darrell. Darrell's with us from Wisconsin.
CONAN: Hello, you're on the air.
CONAN: Yes, you're on the air, Darrell. Go ahead, please.
DARRELL: Hi, how are you guys doing?
CONAN: All right.
DARRELL: Excellent show. Um, I had a question of, do you guys know how many people were actually doing the complaining to the FCC? I mean, when they started their rants the last time around, where they made major changes, it turned out to be only 19 people making several thousand complaints.
CONAN: David, you mentioned some of these organized complaints. Is that the bulk of it, or is it other people just writing in?
FOLKENFLIK: You know, there had been some studies done by groups that were, shall we say, skeptical of certain kinds of FCC limitations on what could be broadcast. And their survey seemed to suggest that a lot of it had been organized by conservative groups. But there's certainly all, many, many thousands of them had been deluged because of activist groups. There certainly are also individuals across the country.
CONAN: NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joined us here in Studio 3-A. We've been talking about incidents at Comedy Central involving South Park, and at the WB where scenes were cut for fear of offending the FCC and prompting fines. David, thanks very much for being with us.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
CONAN: In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.
SOUNDCLIP OF MUSIC
LES CLAYPOOL: (Singing) Heading on up to South Park gonna see if I can't unwind.
KENNY: (Singing) (Unintelligible)
CLAYPOOL: (Singing) Come on down to South Park and meet some friends of mine.