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Dexter, Decency and DVRs

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The PTC wants to stop him before he kills again—on CBS. / Dan Littlejohn/Showtime

I had lunch yesterday with Tim Winter, the president of broadcast-decency advocate and my sometime adversary, the Parents Television Council. Among the issues we discussed was CBS’s plan to repurpose Showtime’s serial-killer drama Dexter next month; the PTC would be launching a campaign soon, he told me. “Soon” was right; this just came to my inbox:

LOS ANGELES (January 30, 2008) – The Parents Television Council™ called on CBS to cancel its plans to air Dexter, a graphically violent show about a “hero” who is a serial killer, that has aired on premium cable network Showtime for two seasons and is scheduled to begin airing on broadcast network CBS on Sunday, February 17.

“We are formally asking CBS to cancel its plan to air the first season of Dexter on its television network. This show is not suitable for airing on broadcast television; it should remain on a premium subscription cable network. The biggest problem with the series is something that no amount of editing can get around: the series compels viewers to empathize with a serial killer, to root for him to prevail, to hope he doesn’t get discovered. Dexter introduces audiences to the depths of depravity and indifference as it chronicles the main character’s troubled quest for vigilante justice by celebrating graphic, premeditated murder,” said PTC President Tim Winter.

You might expect me to bash the PTC here, as I am sometime wont to do. But this kind of campaign doesn’t bother me.

I disagree with the PTC about Dexter on CBS; I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a network to air, even in primetime, shows that any reasonable adult knows are for adults, and to expect parents to be parents. But so what? Let them disagree. Vocally protesting TV you don’t like is a good thing; some of us call it TV criticism. Complaint letters, boycotts: I have no problem with people exercising their power in the market to protest TV, nor with people using their power in the market to support TV they like. I’m pro-choice on media: choose to watch, choose to protest.

What I object to are the PTC’s attempts to get the government, through the FCC, to limit other people’s choices, through fines and content regulation. I don’t believe that your desire to shield your children from certain content means that I should be denied the choice to expose my own children, or my adult self, to the same content. You raise your kids, I’ll raise mine. If the PTC tries to get the FCC to act against Dexter, then I’d be on them. They almost certainly won’t, because as even Winter acknowledges, there is presently little or no legal basis for regulating violence on TV. (As opposed to sex. Welcome to America.)

Anyway, this all got me thinking of another subject we talked about: DVRs. Much of PTC’s argument for regulating TV is based on the notion–arguable, but I’ll let it lie here–that children are at risk of being “assaulted” by inappropriate content coming into their house, over the airwaves, during the primetime and daytime “safe harbor” hours. But with a DVR, you watch shows when you want. When your TV happens to receive them is irrelevant. You can watch late-night shows in primetime and vice versa. And it’s harder to make the argument that anything is being “forced” on you at inappropriate hours.

What happens to the keep-primetime-safe-for-kids argument then?

Now most people still don’t use DVRs. But the number is growing, fast: The percentage of households with DVRs went up from 9 to 20 percent in the last TV season. If fewer and fewer people eventually watch TV “live,” then groups who argue for a “family friendly” primetime could be in a situation analogous to public TV in the era of cable. Not everyone has cable now, but the great majority do. The things that were once unique to public TV–documentaries, highbrow drama, educational TV–are less and less unique to fewer and fewer households.

I wouldn’t expect the PTC to know how DVRs will affect them in the long run–the whole TV business is still figuring out how DVRs will affect everything in the long run. And DVRs can be a useful tool for decency groups by helping them inform people’s choices rather than take choices away. (The PTC partners with TiVo on a guide to kid-safe shows, built into the TiVo software.) Having a TiVo definitely enhances my control over what my kids watch. They pick shows from a menu instead of channel-surfing, so they’re unlikely to stumble across an episode of Rescue Me while looking for What’s New, Scooby-Doo? So at least in my household, the idea that “the children need to be protected” is that much weaker.

Will technology call a truce in the decency wars someday? I don’t know either, but for now it’s an interesting question. How do you protect primetime once there’s no primetime anymore?