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The Costs of Censorship

Don't Censor Him, Don't Censor Me. Censor That Fellow Behind The Tree! By Charlie White
As a video editor, I can recall my darkest day at the controls, back about thirteen years ago. The bone-headed money-grubbing commercial network affiliate at which I was working decided to fill a one-hour hole in its schedule with a movie that ran 1:30. The time slot was what we called "Make-Good Theater" where any commercial spots that didnt run during the month, for whatever reason, were played during this hour, so the sales staff could tell advertisers their spots actually ran on our air.

As my supervisor assigned me this revolting task, I got a sinking feeling. He wanted me to "just make a few cuts, here and there," so that the film would fit into that 1:00 time slot, allowing, of course, for sixteen thirty-second spots inside. So, the job was to turn 90:00 into 52:00. I was in agony. What would I do? The movie to be hacked apart was no masterpiece, mind you. It was an ancient episode of Hopalong Cassidy, one of those shows that's so bad, you're wondering if it was created to be crappy on purpose, like an Ed Wood movie. But it was still painful to hack the innocent thing apart, turning a program that was already lame into something that was not only awful, but impossible to follow.

But I did it anyway, even though I felt like going home and taking a shower immediately afterward. At that point I realized how it felt to be a prostitute. That's an example of censorship of the worst kind -- its done for material gain, and nothing else. Viewers be damned, as long as we get our moola. Unfortunate, isnt it? But there are additional forms of censorship, almost as painful, that we as editors will probably be asked to execute in the name of national security, morality and decency.

The national security censorship, especially in light of the recent tragedies in the US, is understandable. I would gladly edit out footage of a terrorist describing how to circumvent airport security, for example. Harder for me to accept are those censorship decisions that have to do with morality. The US TV networks are currently wrestling with this issue. Producers feel like theyre being slaughtered by HBO, with its dramas like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and now the 10-part Spielberg/Hanks epic, Band of Brothers. On these high quality programs, characters are allowed to talk the way real people talk, in the real world. For this, we can be thankful. Imagine Tony Soprano reacting to the death of a colleague with a resolute "Aw shucks, they killed him!"

The presence of profanity lends realism to these dramas, without which some scenes would be just plain silly. But the networks are using this censorship issue as a scapegoat. If they would commit $12 million per episode, as HBO has done with Band of Brothers, they could go part of the way toward fending off the HBO juggernaut. But still, their programming would seem unnaturally scrubbed for my taste. But where does this leave us, the editors? Well still be asked from time to time to place an audio bleep over some "awful" word someone has uttered. And for me, that will be painful.

I find it pathetic that so many Americans are so removed from reality. In describing the attacks on the World Trade Center, over and over I heard eyewitnesses say that the explosions were "just like a movie." In our over-entertained, reality-starved populace, the best we can do when faced with bitter tragedy in the real world is to conjure up old movie memories in our innocent little heads. About the closest we came to reality before these disasters were episodes of Survivor. Thinking about this concept shows me that we've had our heads in the clouds (or in the sand) for so long that in many ways the real world is passing us by. What do we expect from a country where the main activity besides working and sleeping is watching television, mostly censored television, for an average of seven hours per day? There's something sad about that. Television, where a full 33% of its time is occupied by mind-numbing, brainwashing commercials, has become reality for lots of drone-like people in the US and elsewhere.

When will our society finally own up to reality, and stop trying to hide the real world from our children? I find it ironic that prudish parents will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent their children from ever seeing a man and a woman making love on screen, or a picture of a naked human body, even a glimpse, but think nothing of letting those same kids watch cartoons where characters are burned alive, exploded and even decapitated, all in the name of entertainment. And have you ever noticed that when someone calls for censorship, its never for censoring themselves, but for someone else, for children? "Don't censor him, don't censor me -- censor that fellow behind the tree!"

I think the overall dumbing-down of program content for the sake of keeping secrets from children is a huge price to pay for a flimsy concept -- there has never been one study that proved that watching sex or violence ever hurt anybody. I say, given the freedoms we'll be asked to give up in the coming weeks and months because of those scoundrels who killed thousands of our fellow citizens, let's not add fuel to the fire by needlessly censoring ourselves. In the edit suite, stand up for reality! As a country, we could use a healthy dose of it.
Charlie White, your humble storytellerCharlie White has been writing about new media and digital video since it was the laughingstock of the television industry. A technology journalist and columnist for the past seven years, White is also an Emmy-winning producer, video editor and shot-calling PBS TV director with 26 years broadcast experience. Talk back -- Send Chazz a note at [email protected].

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