Thursday, July 14, 2005

Is there any Intelligent Life down there?

Intelligent Life, The Economist’s summer 2005 lifestyles-for-the-global-rich-and-trendy crowd, has a few harsh words for America’s television: It could be heading for global irrelevance.

Contributor Caitlin Moran notes that America’s traditional easy global dominance of scripted dominance - in place for more than half a century - is possibly coming to an end, the victim of the new conservative ascendancy in the culture wars. She argues:
    Over the past year, a schism between America and the rest of the world has begun to open. Triggered by the amusingly inconsequential revelation of Janet Jackson’s nipple during a half-time performance at last year’s Super Bowl, and fueled by America’s historical inhibitions about sex, a rising sense of moral and religious hysteria has swept through American TV.

She runs through the various pieces of evidence, many of which I have already commented on in mediaville: the $550,000 fine on CBS for showing the Jackson breast; a decision by Fox to “pixelate animated nudity in the cartoon Family Guy;” PBS’s cowardly decision to remove from a docudrama (Dirty War), “scenes of a woman in a shower being decontaminated after a nuclear attack”; and PBS president Pat Mitchell’s decision to pull an episode of Postcards From Buster that featured a lesbian couple. Moran concludes: “For the first time since the 1960s, American television looks in danger of being created in a mode of what isn’t possible, rather than what is.” As a result, what she calls “the seemingly endless expansion of liberalism in the world of television is suddenly going into reverse.” She continues:
    If broadcasters accept the principle that non-sexual nudity—the actual human body, no less—is in itself obscene, then we are only a step away from homosexual characters being removed from scripts, morally ambiguous characters being censored, and similar edicts on there being subjects that art (even if only television) isn’t allowed to touch anymore.

And though Moran doesn’t make this point, I will: It starts with children’s programs. Every conservative agenda item in America is promoted by a plea to “consider the children”—this in a society with thee West’s highest infant mortality rate and where no-one considers giving mothers a proper amount of paid maternal leave (6-12 months) to look after their children when they are most vulnerable! But I digress, if only slightly.

Moran sees a clear link between this increasing Puritanism and the rising reluctance of media producers to take on controversial political matters—witness the rapid rise in sci-fi dramas and “nostalgia dramas.”

Of course, while American television languishes, European TV powers ahead, tits and ass and all. She focuses on two fascinating examples of British cheeky inventiveness, both of which would be unimaginable in the US mainstream: The Guantanamo Guidebook, produced for Channel 4, in which volunteers (contestants?) "are ‘mildly tortured’ in the manner of Camp X-Ray” (see The Guardian's take here); and Sky One’s Badly Dubbed Porn, “in which ‘classic’ porn movies are redubbed by comedians.” And British TV also manages to tackle other controversial subjects in the political as well as the moral realm. Coincidence? I think not. The two go hand in hand. (For the moment America has HBO, but how long can that diamond in the rough survive the turn to conservative morality?)

Anyway, I think I’ll have plenty to tune in to next time I’m home!


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