The PTC Racket

Last night’s Glee was one of the more enjoyable ones, although as Todd notes, the Blaine who appeared in this episode is basically a different character from the one who was originally introduced. His early appearances implied that he was supposed to be the worldly-wise one, but for the purposes of this episode he needed to be unworldly, so that’s what he became. Ryan Murphy’s shows almost employ cartoon logic in their approach to characterization, which is that a character is defined by a few basic traits or relationships, and everything else is negotiable from episode to episode. This is how Tweety Bird can be an innocent in one cartoon and a sadist in the next one. (More recently, I recall Larry David addressing complaints that Kramer is courageous and strong in one episode, and a coward in another episode – he argued that that kind of consistency isn’t important.) Some shows have rules that govern every aspect of the characters’ behaviour, and others have only the barest of rules; the only thing that defines some of the people on Glee is who they’re romantically involved with. In an odd way, it works, because the Ryan Murphy universe is a cartoony universe where character motivation and personality are very flexible.

The episode, the most tasteful and reserved losing-their-virginity episode in some time, got a lot of publicity build-up because the Parents’ Television Council complained about the content. I sometimes wonder if this group has any actual power, of if it just seems that way because they’re the source of virtually all the reports about this kind of complaint. The PTC is extremely aggressive about getting itself into the news, but more importantly, they’re there in a way that most pressure groups are not. There is pressure, there are complaints and boycotts and people changing the channel, but a lot of it isn’t organized in a very public way: if people have political or social complaints about a show, it’s likely to occur in venues that we don’t necessarily follow. The PTC’s gimmick is turning this kind of complaint into press releases; they are the one-stop shopping location for socially conservative views of television, and so they are always going to be quoted when a quote is needed about moral turpitude in television.

In this sense, the PTC is very much like William Donohue. People have complained that Donohue is often quoted to represent the views of conservative Catholics, when his organization doesn’t speak for many Catholics. (This is all unlike the old Legion of Decency, which really was powerful – movie studios were actually listening to them and pleading with them not to condemn their movies. Focus on the Family is an organization that wields some actual power, and the old Moral Majority did too, but the evidence that anyone is listening to the PTC is sketchy at best. Maybe the FCC, but a lot of the complaints they get from the PTC are sort of frivolous complaints that never result in fines.) There’s really no telling who these organizations speak for, but they’re there, and they’re available for quotes. In effect, the PTC and Donohue are used as proxies for views that are assumed to be common, but can’t be traced to anyone in particular.

The problem with this is that there’s a danger of assuming that the PTC really speaks for Heartland values, when we really don’t know what the Heartland thinks. Well, sometimes we do, usually when people vote with their money – like it or not, it was clear that the Dixie Chicks had alienated a chunk of the country music audience when they criticized President Bush. And we know that there is a market for movies with certain types of conservative or religious messages. But with TV, where most people don’t pay directly for the shows they watch, there’s often no telling what people want or like, so we wind up extrapolating; the thing is, though, we don’t know. We don’t know what type of content offends people and what doesn’t. Maybe the networks, with their more sophisticated data, knows what offends people. But the network executives probably know more about this sort of thing than the PTC does. What a PTC press release is, in effect, is a sort of fantasy version of regular-folk values; they’re sort of writing fanfic about the average Heartland viewer, but they simply don’t give us any insight into what that viewer really thinks.

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