Doing your TV math

Posted: Dec 06, 2004 12:00 AM

Ever since exit-pollsters discovered a significant chunk of voters were casting their ballots based on which candidate stood for moral values -- and most of those who chose that reason for their vote said they picked Republicans -- the Hollywood crowd has tried to pick the idea apart, as conflicted, even ridiculous.
The anything-goes gang is suggesting we live in a pretty hypocritical country if we can profess our desire for moral leadership and make our No. 1 smash on television the ABC smut soap "Desperate Housewives." When the red states profess a great concern for moral values and then embrace sleazy shows, that's hypocrisy, is it not?

  No, it's not. The argument is disingenuous. Television today is so splintered, with so many choices, that a hit show -- even a No. 1 show -- doesn't translate into broad (and never mind majority) appeal. "Desperate Housewives" attracts less than 25 million viewers a week. Out of an estimated U.S. population of 290 million people, that's less than one in 10 Americans who cares for this allegedly massive hit show. That fraction of the country is a very lucrative fraction for ABC and its advertisers, but political and pop-culture theorists are drawing wild conclusions about an America riddled with hypocrisy with some rather addled mathematics.

 By the same token, a show like NBC's "Will and Grace" is ranked 20th so far this season, averaging about 15 million viewers. That's very good ratings for a TV show these days, but it's awfully flimsy to take those 15 million Americans -- five percent of the population -- and say, voila, America favors gay marriage.

 Hollywood can write a saucy show with all of its creativity aimed at the collective crotch and make buckets of money. But the numbers prove that a vast majority of the public does not applaud when they push every envelope, erode every decency and mock every moral standard. Hollywood, unfortunately, couldn't care less. Millions can write and call Hollywood in opposition, and nothing happens. Hollywood has made it clear that their La La Land hot-tub programming tastes are not up for debate. Like it, or lump it, but the sleaze parade will continue, so long as a buck can be made. So those millions have learned to send their letters and calls instead to Washington, which seems to be the only way to get Hollywood's attention.

 Now the defenders of sleaze are trying to manufacture the mathematics in Washington, too. The fashionable pundit on all this right now -- recited by every libertine columnist from the New York Times to Newsweek -- is the former TV Guide critic Jeff Jarvis, now fulminating on a Web site called Jarvis tried to earn his math spurs this fall by asserting that he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FCC on the fined Fox show "Married by America." Of the 159 complaints he said he was sent, only three count -- because there were two original letter writers and the rest followed the form of a complaint from the Parents Television Council.

  Perhaps Mr. Jarvis doesn't know this, but I know this, and will charge here publicly: The FCC is lying in a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. There were not just 159 complaints on this very smutty Fox show that featured simulated oral sex, breast-kissing and other sexual antics on prime time broadcast television. The FCC has been awash in thousands of complaints, in faxes, e-mails and phone calls.

 How do I know this? Because I know of over 4,000 PTC members who filed formal complaints on this program. Because I can assume many more non-PTC members complained. And because sources inside the FCC itself have confirmed this to me.

 The FCC is saying officially that if an organization mobilizes its members to complain, and 10, or 100, or 10,000 people complain, it is only one complaint. FCC boss Michael Powell earlier this year issued the greatest insult of all when he labeled those who file grievances -- the very taxpayers who pay his salary -- as producers of "spam." Congress needs to step in, exercising its oversight responsibilities to investigate a federal agency that is complicit in an effort to thwart the public will.

 But I suspect Mr. Jarvis knows this. And Mr. Jarvis knows this, too: The networks have a legal obligation to conform to community standards. There is not a single, solitary community in America today that countenances as acceptable placing sexual raunch like that found in "Married by America" in front of children in prime time. It is a reason why many people stated on Nov. 2 that their greatest concern was the assault on moral values.