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'Sopranos' Sans Swearing, 'Sex and the City' Minus the Sex?

The fight to regulate violence, sexuality, and language on TV rages on in Washington, D.C. Two conservative congressmen -- with support from Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin -- are waging the war on a different front, one that most of us thought was safe from government censorship: cable television.

Yes, cable. That pay service on which groundbreaking shows such as The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Deadwood flourished. The Family and Consumer Choice Act of 2007 -- introduced June 14 by Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and endorsed by Martin -- seeks to apply broadcast indecency standards to cable programming and force cable operators to offer programming on a per-channel basis.

We couldn't help thinking of the (bewildering to some) Sopranos series finale earlier this month. Creator David Chase has said in interviews that he was reticent to put the show on cable at first. Originally the pilot was produced for the Fox network, which turned down the project, as did the other three major broadcast networks. That pilot didn't bear much resemblance to the Sopranos audiences came to love (nobody even got "whacked"), but HBO gave Chase the artistic freedom to deepen, darken, and evolve the series into a tale more true to not only gangsters' lives but also American suburbanites.

A show doesn't necessarily have to include violence, sexuality, or adult language to be successful with critics and/or audiences. But consider how dialogue between the excellent James Gandolfini and Edie Falco would have sounded without common expletives. Imagine Sex and the City without the sex. The shows' characters would not have been as in-depth and, more important, they would not have seemed as real and relatable.

Fortenberry and Lipinski insist children have too much access to such programming clearly meant for adults. "With so much to worry about in today's increasingly busy world, parents are asking for some help in protecting their children from TV material they find inappropriate," Lipinski wrote on his website. "It is time for Congress to act for America's families."

But are parents indeed asking for help? According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released June 19, the majority of parents say they already supervise what their children watch and download. The national survey of 1,008 parents of children ages 2-17 found that 65 percent said they "closely" monitor their children's media use, while only 18 percent said they "should do more."

The survey also found that parents are less worried about their children being exposed to inappropriate content than they were nine years ago. Fifty-one percent of parents surveyed said they are "very" concerned about their kids seeing sexual content, down from 67 percent in a 1998 study. Forty-six percent were concerned about violent content, a sharp drop from 62 percent in '98. And though 59 percent worried about their kids' exposure to adult language in '98, only 41 percent were concerned about language in 2007. However, 66 percent of survey respondents said they favor government regulation of TV content during the early evening hours.

Lipinski and Fortenberry may also have ulterior motives in introducing the Family and Consumer Choice Act. We certainly don't have to remind our readers that elections are approaching. Lipinski and Fortenberry are up for re-election in 2008. Republican Fortenberry votes along his party's lines: pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, and pro-Iraq War. Lipinski is a particularly conservative Democrat. Recently he was one of 16 Democrats to vote against a bill that would have allocated more funding for embryonic-stem-cell research. The Illinois representative also voted against a bill that would have set a deadline for troops' withdrawal in Iraq, and his anti-abortion voting record has earned him a 100 percent approval rating from the National Right to Life Committee.

In light of their voting records, the Family and Consumer Choice Act appears to be more of a feather in the congressmen's respective caps that will appeal to right-leaning voters in their districts. The two may be sincerely concerned about protecting children from the evils of cable television, but they are also probably interested in winning re-election in November 2008.

Whatever the answer, if this latest FCC-friendly act passes, hundreds of would-be Gandolfinis, Falcos, and Chases will pay the price of furthering two men's political aspirations.    

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