Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Whatever happened to the Television Code? And what can bloggers learn from its disappearance?

Frédéric Filloux's post on the "soft corruption" of bloggers has certainly elicited some comment. Not only did I respond to the post, but Steven Hodson did also.

As I was reading Hodson's post, I recalled another code - not necessarily a code of ethics, but a code of practices - that had existed in my childhood, but which had subsequently disappeared. I began to wonder why.

Now to be fair, the Television Code that I referred to is not directly comparable to some type of ethics code for bloggers, primarily because over-the-air television is a finite commodity due to the limited extent of the airwaves. Therefore, over-the-air television (and over-the-air radio before it) are subject to more intense scrutiny than you can find for blogs, or for that matter newspapers.

But other than that major difference, there were some similarities between the Television Code and Filloux's proposed blogger code. First off, the Television Code was originated by the broadcasters themselves, in the guise of their trade organization, the National Association of Broadcasters. The thought was that if the broadcasters policed themselves, the government wouldn't come in and police them. (You can see a similar intent in Tipper Gore's warning labels on recorded music.) The Museum of Broadcast Communications describes the Code:

More than 67% of all television stations subscribed to the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Code adopted in 1950 (a similar radio code had been in operation since 1935). In addition to provisions which addressed historic concerns respecting the "advancement of education and culture," responsibility toward children, community responsibility, and general program standards, the NAB Code also included advertising standards and time limits for non-program material defined as "billboards, commercials, promotional announcements and all credits in excess of 30 seconds per program."

But little by little, the Code went away.

The Code program standards had been suspended in 1976 after a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that the Family Hour violated the First Amendment.

The Family Hour was the idea that in the early evening hours, before they went to bed, kids would not be assaulted with the view of Farrah Fawcett-Majors in a swimsuit. Today, with the advent of cable and satellite television, the effectiveness of any Family Hour is diminished. I live in the western United States, and at 8:00 pm my time (the old "Family Hour" time) I can pick up feeds from the eastern United States, where it's 11:00 pm. And Conan (which often has a TV-14 rating) airs at 8:00 pm out here.

But the First Amendment wasn't the only thing that doomed the Television Code.

In 1982, in settlement of an anti-trust suit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, the NAB and the federal government entered into a consent decree abolishing the time standards and the industry-wide limitations on the number and length of commercials they provided.

And with that, the Television Code went away, and the television networks policed themselves. With the result that for the last thirty years, society has completely fallen apart.

Well, I'm sure that some people believe that, but I don't think that Filloux is one of them.

I still maintain that there are ethical and unethical bloggers, and that the existence or non-existence of a blogger code of ethics is not going to change that - any more than codes of ethics are going to change the industries I mentioned in my previous post, such as sports talk radio.
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