Repent, Hollywood

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

“Sin, sin, sin. You’re all sinners. You’re all doomed to perdition. You’re all goin’ to the painful, stinkin’, scaldin’, everlastin’ tortures of a fiery hell, created by God for sinners, unless, unless, unless you repent.”

So warned the character Elmer Gantry, as played by Burt Lancaster, in the acclaimed eponymous 1960 film based on Sinclair Lewis’ controversial 1927 novel.

Gantry is a salesman and part-time preacher as the film begins. He is loud and coarse, and a womanizer. Above all, he is ambitious and greedy. He meets a beautiful evangelist-healer and falls in love. He joins her cause and becomes a revivalist preacher, spouting all the clichés he has trampled over the years. He rolls up his sleeves, thumps his Bible and warns of hellfire and brimstone for sinners who do not convert to his version of the one and only true religion.

Eventually, his past and his own bad habits catch up with him and his lover … but I will leave you to rent the movie to learn the rest.

Gantry’s tale has been on my mind lately because at each industry convention I have attended this year, there has been a procession of politicians and regulators who have come from Washington to spread the new gospel of the conservative era. If those who make and distribute TV and radio shows don’t repent and eliminate all the obscenity, they warn, a greater power will visit them and force them to change. No, that power is not God. They are warning about government legislation and Federal Communications Commission rules that will be imposed. And if that is not enough, they add, there will be huge fines and even, said one congressman speaking at this month’s cable convention in San Francisco, criminal penalties.

In other words, at a time when there is crime in the streets, crime in corporate America and criminal pollution in our environment and we are being robbed at the gas pump, you, Mr. Broadcaster, may face time in the slammer because somebody flashed an inappropriate body part or pitched an F-bomb on your air, probably without any foreknowledge on your part and almost certainly without your permission.

Welcome to 21st century America, where a thin majority of narrow-minded Elmer Gantrys are determined to act as though they have some great mandate to impose their last-century ideology and old-fashioned point of view on the rest of us for our own good, even if it is anything but good for us.

They will be out in force this week in Las Vegas at the National Association of Broadcasters conclave. These elected officials and appointed pseudo-saints will say they have trekked from our nation’s capital to hear what we, their constituents, have to say. But they will do most of the talking. They will soft-pedal their message for our tender ears and cluck about the importance of having parental controls (which are and have been in place for some time; parents have only to use them). They will say they represent the best interests of civilization, civility and American values. And they will subtly remind you that if your PAC contributes enough to their next political campaign, you too can get an appointment to visit their government-provided suite of offices on your next trip to D.C.

Yes, even as this smug bunch of Gantrys, in their blue suits, with shiny red or blue ties and little American flag lapel pins, do their best to limit your rights and threaten your livelihood, they will also have a hand out for their campaigns and causes. And you will once again put silver in their palms. Because you must.

At a dinner put on last week by the Caucus for Television Producers, Writers and Directors, one of the few almost-sane people working in Washington, Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, explained why you will have little choice. The FCC will take up the question of media consolidation once again, and there is a movement to rewrite the Communications Act once again. “Those awful rules that an FCC majority passed two years ago to loosen our media protections have been sent back to us by the courts,” Mr. Copps said in his remarks. “The good news is they were sent back. The bad news is they were sent back to the very folks who dreamed them up in the first place.”

Mr. Copps wasn’t addressing a bunch of wild-eyed radicals or bomb-throwing crazies. His audience was the top leadership of every major show business union and guild as well as many of Hollywood’s leading producers-almost all of whom actively disagree with what is going on in Washington.

As we saw in the last election, there is a backlash against what are perceived to be the values that Hollywood preaches. Forget about negative campaign ads that distort most of those positions. Hating Hollywood is good business in politics today. Spewing simple-minded messages about a lost era while taking potshots at the electronic messenger is the order of the day. It’s bigger this season in Washington than the cherry blossoms.

Now these ministers of morality are trying to figure out how to impose their values on cable, satellite and pay TV, even though it is clear these are entirely different species, since you must pay to watch them. But because they can’t tell the difference between broadcast and basic and pay cable as they click their remotes, they assume you can’t either. And since they can’t figure out how to read ratings, use a v-chip or control what their children watch, they assume you can’t either.

They remind me of a maintenance engineer in a drafty old newspaper building where I worked years ago. In summer the ancient air-conditioner did such a poor job that the reporters would open the windows to get some air. That, of course, made the air quality even worse. So did the engineer fix the air-conditioner? No, he nailed the windows shut so even on a clear spring day the office always smelled a little like stale newsprint.

I won’t waste time appealing to the Elmer Gantrys who want to nail shut the windows on my right to watch and listen to what I want even when I am paying for it. However, I will ask broadcasters and fellow journalists to join me in being wary of anyone who thinks he has the one and only answer. Those people rarely do.