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TV censorship should be left to parents

We can all remember, with shock, the first time we caught sight of a bare breast on network television. It happened just eight months ago, during the Super Bowl halftime show, when singer Justin Timberlake yanked down Janet Jackson’s top and exposed, for a fleeting instant, an item of flesh never before seen by a broadcast audience.

What’s that you say? That wasn’t the first time? Hmm. I take it viewers got a glimpse of an unmistakably female chest back in 2002, on CBS’ “C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation.” Which would make Jackson’s the second one.

No? There was, it seems, a previous incident when actress Drew Barrymore flashed David Letterman. And what’s this? Meredith Baxter displayed her charms in a 1994 network TV movie.

Well, these things didn’t happen in the wholesome days before Bill Clinton. Huh? They did? Students of “Charlie’s Angels” report a confirmed sighting of one of Farrah Fawcett’s prize assets back in ... can this be right? 1976? And Valerie Perrine gave an eyeful to viewers of PBS — PBS! — in 1973.

In spite of all these episodes, it appears that millions of Americans suffered no permanent trauma from making eye contact with a nipple. But the Federal Communications Commission is taking no chances. Last week, assuming the new role of Federal Breast Police, it announced a fine of $550,000 against CBS for the incident. It fulminated that “the nudity here was designed to pander to, titillate and shock the viewing audience,” and said the network had “betrayed its trust” to the FCC and the parents of America.

That last claim is certainly true: When they tune in NFL telecasts with their offspring, parents don’t normally anticipate gratuitous displays of female flesh — aside from cheerleaders who could have gotten their outfits from Victoria’s Secret. But the fact that CBS surprised millions of viewers last Feb. 1 doesn’t mean federal intervention is required.

We don’t expect the federal government, after all, to prevent offensive nudity in Time magazine, or your local newspaper, or even Highlights for Children. We rely on the informal contract between these publications and their readers to assure that people get more or less what they want, with no rude shocks mixed in. And when a publication breaches that trust, we assume the pain of alienating their customers is punishment enough. CBS and the other networks learned a stinging lesson from this episode — to keep the Super Bowl PG.

The FCC, however, assumes that only censors based in Washington can offer parents protection against the baser impulses of the entertainment industry. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, in announcing this decision, said the First Amendment is “not a license to thrill. ‘Anything goes’ is not an acceptable mantra for those that elect to earn their profit using the public’s airwaves.”

The “public airwaves” rationale is supposed to explain why the government may abridge freedom of speech — if it takes place on TV and radio. But newspaper delivery people use public roads, and magazines are transported with the help of federal air traffic control, and that doesn’t mean print publications are subject to federal censorship. The American people don’t have to rely on Washington bureaucrats to induce broadcasters to serve their needs and interests. The profit motive serves that purpose quite well, thank you.

Not everything on TV is fit for the youngsters, but that state of affairs is not exactly a national crisis, and most people don’t treat it as one. Back in 1996, you may remember, Washington took action against sex and violence by forcing manufacturers to equip every new TV with a V-chip that parents could use (in conjunction with a new ratings system) to block out inappropriate shows. But a 2001 survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that 93 percent of parents don’t bother using the V-chips.

After the Super Bowl scandal, the big cable companies offered free channel blocking to any subscribers worried that Junior and Sis might be checking out “Sex and the City” on the sly. Again, the response was nearly imperceptible. Comcast, the nation’s biggest cable provider, says less than 1 percent of its subscribers have even inquired about parental controls. Says Mark Harrad, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable, “There’s not an enormous demand for it.”

It may be that most parents don’t put a high priority on making sure their kids never see a breast. Or it may be that they rely on more traditional safeguards, like the “off” button on the remote control. But regardless of how they’re performing their parental role, they don’t need the federal government to take it over.

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate.