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See No Evil?

How decency debates are changing (or not changing) TV. Six months after Nipplegate, the networks and the FCC appear headed for new collisions

Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake | NEWS FLASH Since Janet's fleshdance, the battle over prime-time indecency is about to explode
Image credit: Super Bowl: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.com
NEWS FLASH Since Janet's fleshdance, the battle over prime-time indecency is about to explode

It's not easy to shock Tina Fey. As ''Saturday Night Live'''s head writer and ''Weekend Update'' anchor, she's an expert at walking the tightrope between audience and censors. Yet Fey was stunned when, searching the Internet for lyrics to a Richard Rodgers song from South Pacific, that sunny musical from the good old days, she logged onto iTunes to find that the title she was seeking had been edited to read ''C--keyed Optimist.''

''I thought it was kind of funny,'' Fey says. ''Right now there's this overarching caution about anything that might be construed as even remotely offensive.''

No kidding. Welcome to the United States of Hysteria, where post-wardrobe-malfunction censors have been flagging everything from a glimpse of an 80-year-old patient's breast on ER to such decades-old hit songs as Elton John's ''The Bitch Is Back'' to words like damn and urinate on Rush Limbaugh's syndicated radio show. It's a wonder CBS didn't feel compelled to edit the title of its May-sweeps special to ''The D--k Van D--e Show Revisited.''

It may come to that, as both sides of the culture wars fire the latest salvos in a conflict that is unlikely to yield a ''Mission Accomplished'' banner any time soon. So far this year, the Federal Communications Commission has issued over $2.5 million in fines against broadcasters who've violated its decency standards -- according to the Center for Public Integrity, that's more than the proposed fines over the previous 10 years combined. Meanwhile, Congress is fine-tuning legislation that could increase the FCC's fining power to as much as $3 million per incident.

Now, after several months of relative silence, broadcasters are beginning to push back. Viacom copresident and co-COO Les Moonves recently threw down the gauntlet while discussing reports that the FCC was preparing to fine his company more than $500,000 for February's Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake paw de deux. ''The idea of a fine for that is patently ridiculous, and we're not going to stand for it,'' Moonves told the Television Critics Association on July 18, vowing to take the fight to court if necessary.

''It's important before we begin the new season for the creative community to know there is some support,'' Moonves later told Entertainment Weekly. ''We support the creative process. We support the First Amendment. We support the right that [TV producers] Steven Bochco and David Kelley and Anthony Zuiker have to do the kinds of shows they want, and for Howard Stern to do his radio show.''

The new fall TV schedule promises to provide plenty of fodder for the decency police. ABC will debut ''Life as We Know It,'' a teen boinkathon that features a student engaging in X-tracurricular activities with his teacher. In NBC's latest foray into prime-time animation, ''Father of the Pride,'' a mommy lion discovers her youngster's secret stash of catnip while cleaning -- sure to attract many young eyeballs at 9 p.m, though perhaps not as many as it would have had NBC Universal TV president Jeff Zucker decided to schedule it at 8 p.m. And on The WB's ''7th Heaven,'' long embraced by cultural conservatives as an oasis of old-fashioned virtues, college-age Simon will become the first Camden kid to just say yes to premarital sex.

Heading into the homestretch of a particularly divisive presidential campaign, Hollywood and Washington are set on a collision course. As one famous former TV pitchman (and President) might have said, ''Here we go again.''

Brent Bozell is fighting to defend the innocence of American children. A 49-year-old father of five, Bozell is the founder of the Media Research Center, one of the groups that lobbied CBS to pull ''The Reagans'' from its November sweeps schedule; he also heads the Parents Television Council, which used grassroots strategies to put a bullet in what would have been the fourth televised Victoria's Secret jigglefest and is now targeting FX's ''The Shield'' and ''Nip/Tuck.''

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