film & video
This page considers television censorship.
It covers -
Broadcast censorship in advanced democratic economies
has centred on three notions.
The first is that broadcast media are uniquely powerful,
profoundly seductive and thus need discrete regulatory
regimes under specialist agencies such as the US Federal
Communications Commission (FCC)
and the Australian Communications & Media Authority
That is in contrast to the non-electronic mass media,
where for example few nations have a government agency
specifically concerned with newspaper, magazine and book
The second is that radiofrequency spectrum is a scarce
resource, to be administered in the public interest. Broadcasters
are either state owned (and therefore subject to government
policies on broadcast content/styles) or are licensed
by the government. By the 1990s licensing in most of the
economies involved substantial self-regulation, with commercial
and non-commercial private sector broadcasters self-censoring.
That self-censorship generally has involved industry codes
covering types of content, language and scheduling of
transmissions (eg prohibitions on broadcast of 'adult'
content during times when minors are likely to be watching.
US broadcasting for several years included a ban on the
so-called Pacifica 7, ie seven profanities.
Typically the codes have reflected film rating schemes
(ie parental advisories) and included outright bans on
broadcast of particular content.
Although the withdrawal of licenses is extremely rare,
the significant investment in individual licenses, talent
and networks (we've for example noted the vicissitudes
of Australian radio network owners who overpaid for assets
during the 1980s radio boom) means that broadcasters tend
to be cautious.
The third notion is that broadcasting is 'democratic'
- since the 1970s accessible to most consumers in advanced
economies - and dissimilar to older media that can be
physically quarantined (eg restricted to a red light district,
under a counter or in a closed library stack) or restricted
by price (the traditional control mechanism for erotic/subversive
literature) or can be partly managed through restrictions
on sale (eg prohibitions on sale to minors of some recordings
codes of practice
Co-regulatory regimes have typically featured formal codes
of practice, of varying specificity and endorsement by
the government agency that licenses use of radiofrequency
spectrum. Such codes are generally exclusive, for example
prohibiting advertising of contraception or promotion
of illicit drug use but not offering a 'right of reply'
or in practice much more than tokenistic 'equal air time'
for community groups/causes.
Australian industry codes are formally registered with
the Australian Broadcasting Authority, now the Australian
Communications & Media Authority (ACMA).
They include -
Television Australia (CTVA)
- formerly the FEderation of Australian Commercial Television
Stations (FACTS) - Code of Practice, covering
program classifications, accuracy, fairness and respect
for privacy in news and current affairs, advertising
time, placement of commercials and program promotions
and complaints handling | here
New Zealand the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA)
endorses sectoral self-regulation through industry codes,
in particular the -
Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
Subscription Television Codes of Broadcasting Practice
In the US a mandatory National Association of Broadcasters
code was abandoned in 1983.
Commercial broadcasting in Australia, New Zealand, the
US, UK and other countries is primarily driven by advertising
rather than by subscription fees. Self-censorship by commercial
broadcasters has thus featured a tension between -
desire to push regulatory boundaries (often with the
tacit acceptance of regulator) in maximising revenue
through sale of advertising slots based on audience
ratings without incurring intervention by regulators
advertisers - and competing audience demographics -
some with incompatible requirements (eg particular advertisers
don't want to juxtaposed with advertisements for birth
control or personal hygiene products
groups that view the spectrum as a public resource and
seek to persuade legislators that broadcasters have
a duty not to transmit particular content (eg programming
that is violent or features what is deemed to be offensive
that particular content will not attract the interest
of the desired demographics, with the result that 'marginal'
programming simply does not go to air
demands of the medium ("if it doesn't move, don't
shoot it"), which privileges excitement, succinctness
and motion over sustained narrative, analysis and nuance.
latter point - exacerbated by the often unrecognised difficulty
of producing compelling content - has resulted in what
critics have variously described as the broadcast cultural
wasteland, 500 channels with nothing worth watching, and
censorship by default.
It is argued for example that 'challenging' or simply
self-indulgent film in Australia is often only broadcast
on SBS, which has an audience share of under 2%, or community
television with an audience in the thousands (and budgets
The Broadcast Revolutions profile
on this site highlights particular studies such as James
Baughman's perceptive Television's Guardians:
The FCC & the Politics of Programming, 1958-1967
(Knoxville: Uni of Tennessee Press 1985), Heather Hendershot's
Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation Before
the V-Chip (Durham: Duke Uni Press 1998), Kathryn
Montgomery's Target: Prime Time - Advocacy Groups
& the Struggle over Entertainment Television
(New York: Oxford Uni Press 1989), Geoffrey Cowan's See
No Evil: the Backstage Battle over Sex and Violence on
Television (New York: Simon & Schuster 1979)
and Robert Corn-Revere's Rationales & Rationalizations:
Regulating The Electronic Media (Washington:
Media Institute 1997).
Jonathan Wallace's Pervasive Problem is an article
on recent US Supreme Court decisions about censorship
of radio broadcasts (do not use the F word) as a model
for online content regulation. As noted earlier, keeping
the airwaves free from nastiness is a task for Australia's
ACMA, inherited from the Australian Broadcasting Authority
Lynn Spigel's Make Room for TV: Television & the
Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: Uni of
Chicago Press 92), William Boddy's Fifties Television:
The Industry & Its Critics (Urbana: Uni of Illinois
Press 1999), Michael Sproule's Propaganda & Democracy:
The American Experience of Media & Mass Persuasion
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1997) and Ken Auletta's
Three Blind Mice: How The Television Networks Lost
Their Way (New York: Random House 1991) offer other
cold war, hot peace
This section is under development
Michael Hensle's Rundfunkverbrechen: Das Horen von
"Feindsendern" im Nationalsozialismus (Berlin:
Metropol 2003) considers the Verordnung der ausserordentliche
Rundfunkmassnahmen (decree concerning extraordinary broadcasting
measures) - aka the Rundfunkverordnung - that criminalised
listening to or spreading the content of foreign radio
broadcasts. Penalties for 'radio crime', which could be
tried by special courts, included death.
Technological mechanisms for censorship have essentially
taken three forms -
through an interfering broadcast
of metadata in transmissions (eg the 'broadcast
flag' and US V-Chip regime) to facilitate intervention
scissors' and other tools for editorial intervention
prior to transmission
first two forms have been favoured in wartime and by totalitarian
regimes, with for example owners of radio receivers having
to register each set (which would then be modified to
prevent tuning to particular frequencies) and national
broadcasters competing for the same part of the spectrum.
Since the 1980s there has been interest in mechanisms
that detect advisory information encoded in broadcasts
and prevent the display of that broadcast. The major example
has been the controversial US V-Chip scheme, discussed
in The V-Chip Debate: Content Filtering from Television
to the Internet (Mahwah: Erlbaum 1998) Monroe Price.
The scheme is of interest as a model for filtering of
internet content via PICS
or a similar metadata.
It centres on the V-Chip, mandated by the Federal Communications
Commission for all television receivers with screens greater
than 12 inches. The chip reads advisory information encoded
in the rated program and blocks content, based on a rating
chosen by the person responsible for minors who watch
that receiver. The advisory information embodies TV Parental
Guidelines established by the National Association of
Broadcasters, the National Cable Television Association
and the Motion Picture Association of America.
The V-Chip has been controversial, with criticisms that
it does not cover many older receivers and incorrectly
assumes both that guardians will be responsible and that
guardians have the skills (unlike those in their care)
to correctly set the ratings.
For Western audiences the major broadcast censorship technology
over the past three decades has been electronic scissors:
modifying content prior to transmission. That editorial
intervention has embraced -
obscene, defamatory or otherwise offensive language
(often in conjunction with a nine second delay in radio
scenes, using alternate audio content or pixellating
particular images in television current affairs and
entertainment television broadcasts (action which in
some instances poses questions about the moral
rights of film directors).
Much debate about broadcasting censorship is attributable
to the notion that broadcasting (and thence the net) is
so uniquely powerful - or merely pervasive - that it is
beyond the control of the individual recipient. Some advocacy
groups, using traditional rhetoric about seduction, have
argued that audiences become desensitised - even hypnotised
by exposure to a screen - and lose the capacity to make
appropriate choices on behalf of themselves or minors.
The US Parents Television Council (PTC) for example shrilled
that its members were "disgusted, revolted, fed up,
horrified" by the "raw sewage of the ultra-violence,
the graphic sex, the raunchy language" on broadcasts.
In response critics suggested that parents exercise responsibility
over the viewing habits of their children - most televisions
and radios feature an 'off' button - and determine what
is broadcast by not viewing/listening perceived offensive
In 2008 Saudi Arabia's most senior judge, Sheikh Salih
Ibn al-Luhaydan, told listeners to a radio interview that
it is permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV channels
which broadcast "immoral programmes". He might
feel at home with the PTC.
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