When television emerged as a fledgling medium in the middle years of the last century, it already had, in the form of the Federal Communications Commission, the Communications Act of 1934, and various other laws and precedents, a framework for regulating its content. The formal restrictions on the broadcasting of obscene, indecent, profane, prurient, and violent material, combined with the sensitivities of mainstream advertisers, defined the boundaries of Prime Time television through the fifties, sixties, and much of the seventies — until the spread of cable programming changed everything.
When the internet emerged as a medium in the 1990s, it was free of any such regulatory framework restricting its content. Indeed, an anything-goes ethos was as essential to the nature and ideals of the net as the family-friendly ethos was to the nature and ideals of TV during its formative decades. The net, in other words, escaped the sanitized Prime Time phase.
Or did it?
- “Content that depicts family entertainment characters engaging in violent, sexualized, or otherwise inappropriate behavior, including videos positioned in a comedic or satirical manner.”
- “Content that focuses on real world tragedies, including but not limited to depictions of death, casualties, physical injuries, even if the intention is to promote awareness or education.”
- “Content that is incendiary, inflammatory, demeaning or disparages people, groups, or causes.”
- “Content that is depicting threats or acts of violence against people or animals, [including] excessively graphic violence in the course of video gameplay.”
- “Content where the focal point is nudity or adult content, including depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative.”
- “Content that features coordinated criminal activity, drug use, or vandalism.”
- “Content that depicts overly graphic images, blood, open wounds, bodily fluids, surgeries, medical procedures, or gore that is intended to shock or scare.”
- “Content depicting or promoting the excessive consumption of alcohol, smoking, or drug use.”
- “Inappropriate language.”
I’m not sure Petticoat Junction would have made it through that gauntlet.
Rather than being imposed by government fiat, Facebook is imposing these content restrictions on itself in response to growing public concerns about the net’s anything-goes ethos and, in particular, to advertisers’ growing worries about what Facebook VP Carolyn Everson terms “brand safety.” The fact that the rules allow little or no room for editorial judgment — is this image exploitative or journalistic? — reveals what happens when a tech firm becomes a media hub.
Some will welcome the sweeping new restrictions on content. Others will be appalled. What they make clear, though, is that the internet, as most experience it, has entered a new era, spurred by the consolidation of traffic into a handful of sites and apps run by companies whose fortunes hinge on their ability to keep advertisers happy. The internet is reliving the history of television, but in reverse. First came Anything Goes. Now comes Prime Time.
Image: George Carlin, circa 1972.