On Thursday, NBC announced that infamous shock jock Howard Stern will serve as a judge on the prime-time talent competition America's Got Talent. Both the network and Piers Morgan, who Stern is replacing, have expressed their excitement about the change, citing his experience as an entertainer. But not everybody is thrilled with this developed. A conservative advocacy group called The Parents Television Council (PTC) is calling Stern's hiring “...An act of desperation for a flailing network...” and claims it is proof that NBC's principles have “...Clearly gone out the window.”
Like the PTC, I don't like Stern. I don't find him entertaining, and my kids wouldn't be allowed to watch or listen to him. Unlike the guardians of morality at the PTC, however, that's where my crusade stops. There's no reason to attack Hollywood in order to force your views on society the way PTC is.
Everybody knows the arguments put forth by groups like this. America is losing its moral standing; the entertainment industry is brainwashing our children; it's time to fight back, blah, blah, blah. Look it up if you don't believe me. But let's keep in mind what we're talking about here: a major network trying to produce successful television. Given that a major portion of the prime-time audience is families with children, it would be unwise for NBC to allow Stern to be as outrageous as he is on his radio show. They want to sell advertising and avoid the hell that the FCC is able and willing to bring down on them. Put another way, there are already mechanisms in place to keep our children's eyes and ears free of vulgarity. Just having Stern associated with the show is provocative enough, and that's what NBC is after.
But maybe a handful of naughty words will slip out during America's Got Talent. What happens then? Surely there's some evidence that Stern's foul mouth will usher in America's decline should he be allowed to express himself. Well, no, there isn't. The PTC produces reams of reports, television and movie reviews and press releases, none of it peer-reviewed and published in science journals, or corroborated by any scientific body. The scrutiny offered by that kind of expert feedback is how we validate claims, and the PTC completely avoids it. Their recommendations are based entirely on their political and religious convictions. That's fine for private individuals but it isn't good enough for public policy. To affect change on a societal level, you need evidence — and they don't have any.
That may not be a big deal to a group looking to take a stand in the culture war, but it should be to people interested in knowing how entertainment impacts consumers. Actual research has demonstrated that television audiences aren't helpless sponges ready to absorb whatever Hollywood throws at them. When it comes to advertising, for example, the evidence indicates that children know when it's meant for them and find entertainment in evaluating it. Furthermore, as Reason columnist Greg Beato points out, television serves a communal function; we like watching it with others. The point being, an audience conscience of what it's watching and why it's watching isn't easily bamboozled, as the PTC would suggest.
Despite all the cries of moral bankruptcy, the PTC, like all other neo-prohibitionists, need to realize that people aren't idiots. All you have to do is trust them to raise their own families and make their own judgments about wholesome entertainment. That was true long before Stern came to prominence, and it'll be true long after he's gone.
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