Desire and decency: Do Americans really want cleaner TV?

Jaws dropped across the country in 2004 when Janet Jackson had a “wardrobe malfunction” that resulted in millions of Americans catching a glimpse of the singer’s breast during the Super Bowl halftime show. Almost immediately, phones began ringing at CBS affiliates throughout the country and, more significantly, at the Federal Communications Commission. Before long, the regulatory agency had logged more than half a million complaints.

The incident seemed like a watershed moment in what most Americans considered to be indecency on TV.

That’s because complaints came from people in red states and blue states and of all faiths, races and socioeconomic backgrounds. The smoke from the game’s fireworks had just cleared when FCC Chairman Michael Powell called for an investigation and Congress moved to create a bill that would increase fines against networks and local stations that violated FCC indecency rules.

The uproar seemed to signal a seismic shift in Americans’ attitudes about how far is too far on TV. Religious leaders of all faiths proclaimed that the average American had finally said, “Enough is enough!” and drawn a moral line in the sand. But a year later, the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” appeared to be just a blip on the American radar. Mark Silk, director for the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said the incident says less about what Americans consider indecent on TV and more about how they feel about the Super Bowl, which he calls an exercise in American civil religion, iconic and patriotic.

After all, even though networks are offering a few more family-friendly shows that draw good ratings, sexually charged and explicitly violent programs continue to attract large audiences. For example, FOX debuted “The Following” in 2013, a drama about an alliance of serial killers. And the CW launched ” The Carrie Diaries,” the same year — a prequel to “Sex in the City” aimed at teenagers.

In fact, although the FCC recorded a record number of complaints about television content in 2004, analysts discovered that after taking out the Super Bowl complaints, 99.8 percent of the grievances could be traced back to one group, the Parents Television Council. It seems what Americans say and what they watch is a muddled issue.

Questions for reporters

  • How did members of your community and religious leaders initially react to the “wardrobe malfunction” and similar incidents? Have their thoughts changed as time has passed?
  • Have these incidents had any lasting impact on local religious organizations?
  • What TV shows are popular in your community? Check with your local stations to get local ratings. What kinds of shows have gained or lost popularity over time? Do shows with violent and/or sexual content draw bigger audiences than family-friendly programs?
  • What do local religious leaders make of the viewing trends in their communities?
  • How do people in your community square what they watch on TV with their moral values?
  • Where do parents draw the line on what their children can watch? Do they talk to their children about what they see on TV and how to understand it?
  • Many Americans – including a lot of parents – say they wish TV didn’t include so much sex and violence, but they differ on how to address that concern. Some want the government to act, while others think the networks should police themselves. What leads different people to different opinions on this issue?The fact that most FCC complaints have been traced to one advocacy group raises the question: Does this group represent the interests of a large number of Americans, who wait for others to address the issue for them? Or are Americans’ concerns about television content much more varied? What do people in your community think?

Why it matters

Moral values were considered a pivotal issue in the 2004 election, but as American television viewing habits show, moral values, whether they are religiously based or not, mean different things to different people.

National sources

In favor of tighter FCC restrictions on TV

  • Katherine G. Grincewich

    Katherine G. Grincewich is associate general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

    She delivered testimony before Congress in which she stated the group’s support of tighter FCC indecency rules.

    Contact: 202-541-3200..
  • Yehuda Levin

    Rabbi Yehuda Levin is founder of Jews for Morality, an Orthodox Jewish group based in Brooklyn, N.Y., that promotes family values.

    Contact: 718-569-8438.
  • David Blankenhorn

    David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. Founded in 1987, the group bills itself as a private, nonpartisan organization “devoted to contributing intellectually to the renewal of marriage and family life and the sources of competence, character and citizenship.”

  • Parents Television Council

    Parents Television Council, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group, has a mission to bring more family oriented programming to television.

    Contact: 213-403-1300.
  • American Family Association

    The American Family Association, based in Mississippi, promotes conservative Christian values, including traditional marriage. It fights against pornography. Media contact is Cindy Roberts.

    Contact: 662-844-5036 ext. 227.
  • Tony Perkins

    Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council, which works to foster “a culture in which all human life is valued, families flourish, and religious liberty thrives.” He also leads the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which tracks religious persecution around the world.

Against tighter FCC restrictions on TV

  • Jordan J. Ballor

    Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow and executive editor at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich., which promotes “a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”

    While he believes that the “wardrobe malfunction” was a symbol of the nation’s declining mores, he does not advocate government intervention. Instead, he promotes voluntary changes by broadcasters.

  • James Steyer

    James Steyer is the founder of Common Sense Media, a politically neutral San Francisco-based group that offers information to help parents make good choices for their families. Media contacts are Amber Whiteside and Crista Sumanik.

  • Andrew Jay Schwartzman

    From 1978 to 2012, Andrew Jay Schwartzman was senior vice president and policy director of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm that represented listeners’ and speakers’ interests before the FCC.  He is an attorney and consultant who specializes in media and telecommunications policy. He is now an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. Contact through Free Press.

  • Barbara Weinstein

    Barbara Weinstein is director of the Commission on Social Action of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. One of the organization’s missions is to support First Amendment rights.

  • Gene Policinski

    Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. The center offers comprehensive research of key First Amendment issues and topics.

    Contact: 615-727-1600.
  • Susan N. Herman

    Susan N. Herman is president of the American Civil Liberties Union, which works to promote First Amendment freedoms and prevent censorship.

    Contact: 212-549-2666.
  • National Coalition Against Censorship

    The National Coalition Against Censorship fights censorship in many places, including television. Joan Bertin is executive director.

  • Michael B. Keegan

    Michael B. Keegan is president of People for the American Way, which fights against censorship.




Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Mark Silk

    Mark Silk is director for the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Silk is also professor of religion in public life at Trinity. He is particularly knowledgeable about religious variances from one part of the country to another; his books include (as co-author) One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics.

    He said the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” outraged such a large cross-section of Americans because the Super Bowl has become what he calls an exercise in American civil religion. However, he said the incident did not translate into any long-term change in attitude toward what’s shown on television.

  • Michael C. Keith

    Michael C. Keith is a professor of communication at Boston College and a radio historian.

    He has commented on the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” and its aftermath.

  • Todd A. Gitlin

    Todd A. Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University in New York. He wrote the book The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 1996).

  • Paul Levinson

    Paul Levinson is a professor in Fordham University’s department of communication and media in New York.

    He has commented on what Americans find offensive on television and the effect that has on the First Amendment.

In the South

  • Kathleen S. Lowney

    Kathleen S. Lowney is a professor of sociology at Valdosta State University in Georgia. She has written about television talk shows and morality.

    She has written extensively on the Parents Television Council and the evolution of its work.

  • Andrew M. Manis

    Andrew M. Manis is associate professor of American religious history at Macon State College in Georgia. He has written on Christian evangelicals and the culture wars, including the section “Protestants: From Denominational Controversialists to Culture Warriors” for the book Religion and Public Life in the Southern Crossroads Region: The Showdown States (AltaMira Press, 2004).

  • John P. Ferré

    John P. Ferré is associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. His focus is on media, religion and culture. He is the editor of Channels of Belief: Religion and American Commercial Television (Iowa State University Press, 1990).

  • Barry G. Hankins

    Barry G. Hankins is a professor of history and church-state studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is an expert on Christian conservatives and their interaction with American culture. He wrote the book Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture.

In the Midwest

  • Quentin J. Schultze

    Quentin J. Schultze is a professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is an expert on religion and its role in popular American culture and has written about the relationship of Christianity and evangelicals to mass media, including television and computers. He is author of the Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age (Baker Book House, 2004).

  • William D. Romanowski

    William D. Romanowski is a professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He wrote Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life and Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture.

  • Michael L. Budde

    Michael L. Budde is chairman of the political science department at DePaul University in Chicago and a frequent lecturer on religious studies. Budde can discuss the growth of churches that believe in miracles.

    He can comment on moves by the FCC regarding indecent content on television.

In the West

  • Stewart M. Hoover

    Stewart M. Hoover is a professor of journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is an expert on religion and popular culture, focusing on how many people use popular culture to make sense of life in a way religion once was used.

  • Linda Kintz

    Linda Kintz is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Oregon in Eugene. She co-edited the book Media, Culture and the Religious Right (University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

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