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Turning back the clock on television

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Modern critics sometimes pan the black-and-white television sitcoms of the 1950s as being unrealistic and idealistic. Real life, they say, never was like that.

They're right. But is a little idealism in the nation's commonly viewed art forms such a bad thing? And, where exactly are the families of today who worry about raising decent human beings supposed to turn on their television sets to find something that's even realistic, let alone idealistic?

They certainly couldn't find it on the episode of Fox's "Married By America" that aired April 7, 2003.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission took the bold and unprecedented step of fining each Fox affiliate that aired this episode $7,000. Because 169 affiliates did so, the total fine comes to $1,183,000. That ought to be enough to wake up anyone who owns a license to use a public airwave. But, unfortunately, the FCC should have acted many years ago, when the slide toward today's televised debauchery was just beginning. Years of inaction have emboldened people who don't care what children see.

Fox officials had the audacity to defend "Married By America" as "not indecent." The episode in question, they said, was only fleeting.

To quote from the FCC document levying the fine, a scene in the show depicted parties with strippers, with certain body parts exposed but pixilated. Men were licking whipped cream off strippers' bodies, and other acts too lewd to describe here were clearly shown. The scene lasted "about six minutes." Subsequent scenes showed strippers trying to lure people into compromising situations. The FCC said, "Under any reasonable interpretation, the material plainly dwells on matters of a sexual nature." It also said there was a reasonable chance children were among the viewing audience (the show was broadcast during what used to be known as the family hour). It was, therefore, "legally actionable."

Of course it was, and it's about time the FCC did something.

Critics of this and other FCC actions are going to cite the folly of trying to control content on the islands of public airwaves when oceans of unregulated cable, satellite and Internet programming surround everyone. The FCC cracked down on Howard Stern, but it didn't silence him. He moved his show to satellite radio. Without much trouble, children can find things on the Internet that make Fox's programming look like an afternoon snack of milk and cookies.

Others will view NBC's recent decision to impose a 5-second delay on NASCAR telecasts as evidence of a chilling fear that now exists in the industry. Racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. prompted the delay when he uttered a vulgarity on live television — a reflection of how many people talk in society today.

But public airwaves are a sacred trust. They must be held to standards that are in the public's best interest, particularly when so many who watch are children. Such standards tell people there are still rules of decorum for social interaction.

Sure, people in the 1950s had a steady diet of unrealistic idealism on TV. But that's better than having no ideals at all.