I firmly believe that "Beavis and Butt-head" is the best thing to happen to television in my lifetime. When TV was limited to three major networks, shows had to be "safe," lifeless and could offend absolutely no one in order to reach such a large audience. As a result, we were stuck with a thousand cop shows, followed by a thousand "Cosby Show" rip-offs. With the rise of cable, 50 to 100 channels suddenly became available. Programming diversified and we suddenly had a comedy channel, a cartoon channel and even shopping channels. Diversity brought shows like "Beavis and Butt-head" and with it CNN, C-SPAN and public access which allowed every street-preacher with a camcorder the opportunity to have his or her own show. Television now exposes viewers to more information and points of view than it has in its entire history.
Congress is responding with an avalanche of legislation that it hopes will bring television back to homogeny: the elimination of public access and public television, the loss of licenses for stations that air nudity, the removal of violent programming or anything considered "harmful" to children and a legal requirement for stations to air "educational" children's shows. Quite simply, all 60 channels on your cable box will be geared to accomodate 12-year-olds. Proponents of government regulation have already taken large steps toward bringing all television down to the level of "Mr. Rogers." To quiet criticism, MTV has moved to make "Beavis and Butt-head" more politically correct by not allowing them to start fires or abuse animals anymore. Imagine if the trend continues:
Beavis: Hey Butt-head. heh, heh. Let's go to church and feed the homeless.
Butthead: Yeah Beavis. heh, heh, heh. God's cool.
Somehow the show will have lost its appeal.
TV censorship is nothing new. Back in the 80s, there was a certain order about it. Conservative religious groups led a campaign against obscenity. Liberals screamed that their free speech was violated. One side won. Life went on as usual. Then liberals found themselves in power and leapt at the opportunity to actually censor something they wanted for a change. Political correctness came in vogue and violence became the new target. Some conservatives stuck with old habits and joined the regulation band-wagon, while others found themselves touting the First Amendment.
But recently things have tumbled from the simply strange to the utterly bizarre. Jerry Falwell, who led many crusades against obscene television, found his "Old Time Gospel Hour" suspended for airing "sexually explicit" material. Apparently some concerned parents protested Falwell's airing of a videotape which made accusations about Clinton's sex life. The offending material included Paula Jones' detailed description of the president's penis and her allegation that Clinton had attempted to coerce her into performing oral sex. In another odd turn of events, the FCC will allow stations to censor political anti-abortion ads for "violent" depictions of fetuses.
We can't really ridicule Jerry Falwell for using sex as a tool to push a particular viewpoint. Sex and violence have been used since the invention of language from "Aesop's Fables" to the Bible. There's no escaping sex and violence, real or imaginary. Even Falwell is not against broadcasting sex, per se, but is concerned with the context in which it is broadcast. Falwell opposes programs that depict premartial sex, homosexuals or the use of condoms, but if sexual content embarrasses a pro-choice president, then it's fit for Sunday mornings between gospel hymns. Similarly, some liberals are trying to prevent the airing of dismembered fetuses, but fight to air the dismembered bodies of full-grown Rwandans to awaken unconcerned Americans to atrocities. Make no mistake about it, regulations are rarely used to suppress sex and violence, but rather to suppress viewpoints.
As family units deteriorate and violent crimes rise, people have turned to television both as a culprit and savior. In Britain last year, a boy led a toddler away from a mall and beat him to death. The facts that the boy came from a broken home and his father was an alcoholic and abusive were not considered. Instead the public blamed "Child's Play 3" which the boy had watched a few days before. As midterm elections approach, politicians have also found TV to be an easy target. If they had blamed other factors they might have been called upon to fund drug prevention centers or more jails to sweep these offenders away for life. Regulating TV is free and lets voters think that their representatives are doing something instead of playing golf.
But if television can incite people to rape and murder, the opposite should also be true. All those years of politically correct sitcoms that preached to "say no" to drugs and respect people with AIDS should have modified our behavior. Despite the alleged power of TV, these shows have done little, if anything. Television, as hard as it has tried, hasn't taught us how to think. People are much too stubborn for that. What television did do, and what television does better than any other medium, is to inform. Television brought AIDS to national attention and even if it didn't succeed in telling us what to think, it got people talking about it. If there is a danger in television, it is that people usually base their decisions solely on what they see on the tube. One must hope that TV continues to present as diverse a number of viewpoints as it can so that its viewers can make informed decisions. What that means is a free, unregulated forum that allows all viewpoints, including those of Jerry Falwell, anti-abortion activists , and yes Ä even those of Beavis and Butt-head.
Dylan Otto Krider is a regular Wildcat contributor.
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