You can't do that on TV, but you can do that

Will M.I.A.'s middle finger change TV the way Janet Jackson's nipple did?

So you may have heard that there was a brief flash of the middle finger on the Super Bowl last night. Will this change TV? That’s not an idle question, even if the controversy is silly. The Janet Jackson incident really did change television, setting back years of censorship relaxation and returning broadcast TV almost to early ’80s standards of censorship – on some things. You could say that it’s because of Janet Jackson that broadcast TV in the U.S. has its current bizarre mishmash of standards, where extreme violence and sadism is fine (as Jon Stewart pointed out in a memorable montage recently), and sexual innuendo goes beyond anything that was previously allowed, but nudity and onscreen sex are strictly self-policed.

Maybe M.I.A. can’t lead to a similar crackdown because “obscenity,” including the middle finger but also including certain words (but not others!) is one of the things that networks police most strongly, as well as one of the things the FCC likes to investigate every now and then. So there’s not much room for more crackdowns. All it could mean is that we won’t get back to the place where we seemed to be going in the ’90s and early ’00s, when it looked like the s-word might start to creep into broadcast TV the way other forbidden words had slowly crept in. (Given that basic cable has recently loosened its restrictions on language and often has unbleeped s-words as a point of pride, you’d think broadcast would want to catch up; this may make it less likely.) Also, the Janet Jackson incident was perfectly suited to set off a Media Firestorm, thanks to its elements of sex and race as well as the speculation about whether it was planned or not. This is more on the level of a “have those musicians gone too far?” discussion, which you hear on TV every week.

But if someone were to try and make a list of the things you can and can’t do on broadcast TV, it would be mind-bogglingly confusing at first, though it does eventually make sense. Things that are OK include, as previously mentioned, any form of graphic violence and sexual innuendo. Things that are not okay include: middle fingers, nipples (though this rule actually goes back and forth, so to speak), the George Carlin words, the word “goddamn” but not “damn,” the term “Jesus” if not used to describe Jesus (but “Sweet Jesus!” is OK). What I’m trying to say here is that the confusion and muddle have only begun, and there’s lots more to come. By the next Super Bowl halftime “controversy,” the rules for what you can say on TV will be even weirder.

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