‘Breaking Bad’ Elevated Television

If you’ve been out of the country for the past six years, you have an excuse for being unfamiliar with Breaking Bad, perhaps the best show that’s ever been on television.

The story of Walter White, a humble high school chemistry teacher who, upon learning he has lung cancer, decides to team up with a former student to make methamphetamines, BB portrays the transformation of White from “Mr. Chips into Scarface,” as the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, describes it.

Fresh off its Emmy award as best drama series, a recognition that was too long in coming, the question now is when will we see another TV series that is as astonishingly good?  And another question: Why is it so hard for truly excellent programming to get air time?

In his book Difficult Men, Brett Martin recounts the lengthy and harrowing path traversed by Gilligan on the way to securing a deal with AMC, one of the several channels that comprise AMC Networks.

Martin tells the tale of Gilligan’s meeting with executives of the TNT cable network, who liked the show but were afraid of the drug-making aspect of it: “We don’t want to be stereotypical philistine executives, but does it have to be meth?  We love this, but if we buy it, we’ll be fired.”

Nor was TNT the only cable network that turned thumbs down on Breaking Bad.  So too did Showtime, HBO, and FX, meaning, as Gilligan put it, “there was no place left in the known universe.”

Elsewhere in his book, Martin usefully recounts the words of the AMC executive (Rob Sorcher) who decided to take a chance on the show: “We had had success with Mad Men,” he said.  “And once you’ve had that cookie it tastes good.  You want another one.  The decision to go another way, believe me, it was … terrifying.  But once you did, once you chose quality over everything else … you could do anything.”

At a time when so much video programming – film as well as TV – is demographically driven, PC themed, and/or scripted for cardboard characters, Breaking Bad is something very different.

Incorporating tremendous writing, directing, acting, and visuals, BB delivered a series that was marked by ambiguity, complexity, surprise, and sophistication.

As many have noted, in recent years the Emmy’s have been dominated by cable rather than broadcast network programming.  Indeed, both pay and basic cable channels have gained a reputation as the place to find smarter, edgier original series like Mad Men, The Sopranos, and of course Breaking Bad (despite the initial drug-themed hesitation about BB).  And this raises the question of why much of the best programming has been gravitating to cable.  

One explanation is that broadcasting is much more heavily regulated.  For this reason, programming that is marked by sexual or violent content carries greater risk for broadcasters than for cable networks.  And the risks involved don’t issue from government only.

A case in point is the Showtime program Dexter, a series that, though critically acclaimed, features both sexual situations and violence.  In 2007, CBS announced that it was considering broadcasting reruns of Dexter over the air.  In response, a conservative group, the Parents Television Council, warned CBS affiliates to preempt the show, and threatened the show’s advertisers.

As it happened, CBS edited the reruns down to a TV-14 rating and aired them on its affiliates, but only for a single season.

None of this is to suggest that violence equals excellence, or that excellence can only be achieved with the inclusion of violence – only that where violence is a necessary ingredient in the excellent telling of a good story, its inclusion ought not to preempt the airing of it.

For years now, many people have bemoaned the “dumbing down” of America, a phenomenon defined by Wikipedia as “the deliberate diminishment of the intellectual level of the content of schooling and education, of literature and cinema, and of news and culture.”

The popular and critical success of Breaking Bad demonstrates that there is both the talent and the audience for something better.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  A version of this article appeared in the online edition of USA Today on Sept. 29, 2013.

A Court Strangely Conflicted About Indecency

By guest blogger LAURENCE H. WINER, professor of law, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz.   

You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse.”  – Caliban in The Tempest

Here’s a question the late language maven, William Safire, might have pondered listening to the recent Supreme Court oral argument in the Fox and ABC broadcast indecency cases.   What is truly “indecent” in the normative, Webster’s Third sense of the word as “not conforming to generally accepted standards of morality”:

(a) “crush videos” depicting actual, gruesome torture and killings of animals for purposes of sexual titillation;

(b) violent video games encouraging a player’s virtual infliction of grotesque mayhem on realistic human avatars;

(c) purveyors of vicious hate speech shamelessly exploiting military funerals to garner media attention; or

(d) fleeting, meaningless uses on television of commonly used expletives and the brief showing of a naked human buttocks to dramatize an awkward family setting?

Hint for those challenged since high school by multiple-choice tests: The answer is not (d).  Yet, the same justices who very recently, and most appropriately, have had no trouble deciding that the First Amendment robustly protects each of the first three categories of expression seem strangely conflicted about so-called “indecency” in the broadcast media.  George Carlin must still be laughing.

To be sure, for many years broadcasters have been their own worst enemy.  Before the 1978 Pacifica case, mainstream broadcasters shunned controversy, bowing to advertising dollars and what they assumed their audiences would not accept in adult entertainment programming.  So terrible precedent was set by the repeated “verbal shock treatment” of the Carlin monologue even when broadcast as a serious commentary on societal language taboos.  More recently, rather than forcing the issue in a favorable posture (and, perhaps, preserving their competitive position versus cable and satellite) by routinely presenting in prime time, with appropriate notice of the content, critically acclaimed adult dramas, broadcasters wound up before the Supreme Court defending inane comments of sophomoric “actresses” (that last term being used advisedly).

To be fair, however, such timidity may be understandable by a media industry anomalously denied full First Amendment protection throughout its history and at risk for increasingly large fines from the government agency that holds its license.  The Supreme Court, however, has no comparable excuse for not finally disavowing Pacifica.

In oral argument of the Citizens United case, Chief Justice Roberts noted: “[W]e don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of [government] bureaucrats.”  In U.S. v. Stevens, the “crush videos” case, he wrote for eight justices: “[T]he First Amendment protects against the Government; it does not leave us at the mercy of noblesse oblige.  We would not uphold an unconstitutional statute merely because the Government promised to use it responsibly.”  And in Snyder v. Phelps, the military funeral case, his majority opinion eschews reliance on a “highly malleable” regulatory standard with “an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow … impos[ition of] liability on the basis of … tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of … dislike of a particular expression” (quoting Hustler Magazine Inc. v. Falwell).  Yet, in support of the FCC’s attempt to avoid a vagueness attack through its generic “context matters” approach to defining indecency – an indefensibly inconsistent approach that Justice Kagan justly summarized as, “nobody can use dirty words or nudity except for Steven Spielberg” – the chief justice made a telling slip of pronoun: “All we [sic] are asking for, what the government is asking for, is a few channels where you can say I’m [sic] not going to – they are not going to hear the S word, the F word.  They are not going to see nudity. “

Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the violent video games case, reaffirms that “disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression” and warns of the “precise danger … that the ideas expressed by speech – whether it be violence, or gore, or racism – and not its objective effects, may be the real reason for governmental proscription.”  But Justice Scalia was very quick to endorse the “symbolic value” articulated in Justice Kennedy’s question as to whether there is “value, an importance, in having a higher standard or different standard for broadcast media on the television … an important symbol for our society that we aspire to a culture that’s not vulgar in – in a very small segment?”  So, per Justice Scalia, FCC commissioners presumably may not enforce their own tastes and standards regarding violence, or gore, or racism, but anything touching on sex (well, actually, even just profanity or nudity) is forbidden.  What fate now (pace former attorney general John Ashcroft and the “Spirit of Justice”) for the bare buttocks in the marble friezes adorning the Court itself to which Seth Waxman, representing ABC, called Justice Scalia’s surprised attention?

Justice Kennedy’s remark was by way of prodding the government’s position and well may not reflect his own approach toward mandating mere symbolic value.  After all, Justice Kennedy is the staunchest protector of free speech ever to sit on the Court.  And early in his tenure, his respect for the symbolism of the American flag did not keep him from providing a fifth vote in Texas v. Johnson to overturn a conviction for burning the flag as a political protest, despite the justice’s own, expressed distaste for the result, one that his view of the Constitution demanded.

Justice Alito (who dissented in Snyder and Stevens and concurred only in the judgment in Brown), perhaps searching for an easy way out, observed (to the dismay of attorney Carter Phillips and his client FOX) that “broadcast TV is living on borrowed time.”  So, rather than intervening, perhaps the Court should let the indecency issue “die a natural death.”  But such avoidance of a current constitutional problem because the future supposedly will take care of itself is reminiscent of Justice O’Connor’s controversial majority opinion in the 2003 law school affirmative-action case (Grutter v. Bollinger), an approach that it is difficult to imagine Justice Alito joining there.  

Perhaps the most dismaying aspect of the oral argument was the scant, almost non-existent, reference to the First Amendment and the appropriate standard of review, which in any non-broadcasting context would have to be strict scrutiny for a content-based restriction of pure speech.  The government relied, with encouragement from some justices, on the old shibboleth of broadcasters enjoying a special privilege in the free, licensed use of the public airwaves for which they may be made to pay through public interest obligations, including indecency controls.  So 20th century!  And an argument well characterized even then as a mere “trope” lacking serious analytical basis. 

The only specific rationale advanced to justify the continuing, chilling intrusion on broadcasters’ and the public’s First Amendment rights was the desire to maintain a “safe haven” on broadcast television, in addition to other dedicated family channels already available, where concerned parents may leave their children without fear they may encounter what five commissioners later determine was indecent content.  (Ads, however, for erectile dysfunction medication, with warnings about “an erection lasting more than four hours,” apparently are fine, despite the questions they could prompt in young children mystified by this adult condition but not at all phased by hearing other words with which they are fully conversant.)  Even if such a “safe haven” were desirable, the justices favoring the FCC’s position showed little inclination to consider the dubious constitutionality of forcing it upon broadcasters.

Kudos, however, to advocate Phillips who reminded the Court that the FCC was relying on “thousands of ginned-up computer-generated complaints,” and did not hesitate to tell the Court that it should overrule Pacifica (though this is not necessary to rule in favor of the broadcasters).  In the constitutional highlight of the Court’s unenlightened engagement with fundamental free speech issues, Phillips definitively rebutted Roberts’s reliance on carving out a small safe haven within broadcasting because so many other unrestricted channels are available: “[T]he notion that one medium operates in a certain way in the exercise of its First Amendment rights can be used as an explanation for taking away or for restricting the First Amendment rights of another medium is flatly inconsistent with what this Court has said across the board in the First Amendment context.  You don’t balance off one speaker against another and give one favored status and give another unfavored status.”  Amen.

The usual caveat about trying to prognosticate an eventual decision from oral argument naturally applies.  Justices Ginsburg and Kagan were skeptical of the FCC’s position, as Justice Thomas has been previously, and Justice Breyer was searching for his usual noncommittal, middle-of-the-road resolution.  It is doubtful a majority will emerge to overrule Pacifica, but the FCC’s current indecency policy also is unlikely to emerge intact.  Even a 4-4 split (Justice Sotomayor recused herself) would uphold the lower rulings against the Commission.  Pacifica, unfortunately, may not be as dead as the other broad categories of recent speech restrictions, but it may be left in a vegetative state.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  Prof. Winer is a member of The Media Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council.

Back to Square One

Two of the Supreme Court’s decisions most awaited by First Amendment advocates this term have landed with a thud.  Or maybe a whimper.  But certainly not with a bang.

On April 28, the Court upheld the FCC’s power to implement a tougher policy against so-called “fleeting expletives” on live television.  This was the Second Circuit’s case involving profanities uttered by Nicole Richie and Cher during music-awards shows in 2002 and 2003.

The other shoe dropped today when the High Court considered the Third Circuit’s case involving Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.  The Supreme Court told the appeals court to consider reinstating the FCC’s $550,000 fine against CBS.  

In both cases the High Court skirted the constitutional question of whether the FCC’s content controls run afoul of the First Amendment.  Last week’s profanity decision, for instance, was decided on procedural grounds (upholding the FCC’s right to change its indecency policy) and only then by a slim 5-to-4 vote.

In both cases too, the courts of appeal had sided with the networks and against the FCC.  The First Amendment question will now most likely be addressed specifically at that appellate level and, one hopes, make its way back to the High Court for a definitive ruling.  

We know that the Supreme Court avoids reaching constitutional questions when a case can be decided on other grounds.  That’s exactly what happened here, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise.  But it’s still a disappointment.

On a bright note, however, Justice Clarence Thomas said in a dissent that he thinks it’s about time to reconsider the two cases at the heart of broadcast regulation: Red Lion, which creates a lower standard of First Amendment protection for broadcasters; and Pacifica, which turns on the FCC’s authority to regulate “indecent” broadcast fare.

The openness of Justice Thomas is both refreshing and hopeful.  But, with the First Amendment question presently back at the appellate level, it will be a long time (if ever) before the Supreme Court tackles the underlying premises of Red Lion and Pacifica.  And with a new, and as-yet-unnamed justice thrown into the mix following the retirement of Justice Souter, all bets could be off.

FCC on the Offensive

Say what you will about the FCC, but you have to admit they’re a scrappy bunch when it comes to pursuing their crackdown on broadcast “indecency.”  First they persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case they lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit – the one about Cher and Nicole Ritchie uttering a couple of verboten words during Fox’s “Billboard Music Awards” shows.

Now the FCC crowd is asking the Supreme Court to hear yet another indecency case they lost – this one in the Third Circuit involving the infamous Janet Jackson wardrobe incident during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show on CBS.

The Supreme Court hasn’t even ruled on the Fox case yet, and in fact heard oral argument only about a month ago (Nov. 4).  But the word on the street is that the justices seemed sympathetic to the FCC’s arguments in Fox – perhaps even sympathetic enough to rule in the agency’s favor.  Handicappers are predicting that a vote favoring the FCC would be slim (say 5 to 4) and decided on narrow procedural grounds, rather than reaching the constitutional issues.  IF the vote goes the FCC’s way at all, that is.  

The common wisdom, of course, is that predicting Supreme Court decisions based on oral argument is a fool’s errand.  So, an unreliable prediction that foresees such a tepid outcome would seem a double whammy, enough to give one pause.

But not the FCC.  They reportedly are buoyed by the oral argument in Fox to the point that they want to pile on with the Janet Jackson matter.  The Commission did, however, request that the High Court defer a decision on whether to hear the Third Circuit case until after the Court rules on the Second Circuit case.   

This begs the question of why the Commission petitioned the Court at this particular time at all.  (The Court is not likely to issue a ruling in Fox until next spring or summer.)  Maybe this is just the Commission’s way of warning broadcasters that the indecency watchdog is not about to roll over and play dead.  To this observer, however, it seems a transparent ploy that might well prove all bark and no bite.    

The FCC, Indecency, and the Rule of Law

Call it a victory for the rule of law.  And a victory for common sense.

On July 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the Federal Communications Commission’s fine against CBS televisions stations for airing the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident.

As you might remember, this was the so-called “wardrobe malfunction” involving Justin Timberlake that allegedly traumatized millions of children watching the Super Bowl halftime show.  Activist groups mobilized, Congress jumped in, and the FCC swiftly cracked down on “indecency” in an abrupt departure from its decades-long policy of restraint toward “fleeting” incidents.

However, the Third Circuit concluded that the FCC had reversed its policy in a manner that was arbitrary and capricious without adequate notice to broadcasters.  In doing so, the Commission had violated the Administrative Procedure Act, the court found.  In essence, the court told the FCC that it can’t do whatever it feels like doing in response to the winds of public opinion or the grandstanding of certain politicians.  

That’s the right decision.  Yet the ruling was greeted in many quarters with reactions ranging from keen disappointment to outrage, as if the indecency crackdown were an end that should be justified by any means.  As John Eggerton reported in Broadcasting & Cable, even the FCC chairman was “surprised” and “disappointed.”  In our judicial system, however, the rule of law trumps personal feelings and public opinion – even the “public opinion” of mass e-mail campaigns orchestrated by activist groups.

So far, the Second Circuit and now the Third Circuit have rebuked the FCC for its recent approach to indecency enforcement.  In response to the Third Circuit’s decision, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin noted “the importance of the Supreme Court’s consideration of our indecency rules this fall.”  He’s right about that – and we trust the Supreme Court will be the next judicial body to get it right.

Those “Outlaw” Television Networks?

George Carlin’s death on June 22 came only days before the 30th anniversary of what has become his legacy in Washington policy circles: The U.S. Supreme Court’s Pacifica decision.

That ruling centered on Carlin’s comedy bit "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" (commonly known as the “Seven Dirty Words” routine), and guided the FCC’s enforcement of so-called “indecent” broadcast content for the next 30 years.

The Parents Television Council took the opportunity of Pacifica’s anniversary July 3 to hammer the networks for daring to challenge the FCC’s indecency-enforcement regime.  “The broadcast medium remains uniquely pervasive," said PTC President Tim Winter.  “It’s time for the broadcast networks to obey the law instead of undermining it.”

The networks have indeed challenged a number of FCC indecency findings in recent years, reaching U.S. Courts of Appeal in the Second and Third circuits, and now the Supreme Court.

But the challenges have revolved, for the most part, around how the FCC defines and then goes about enforcing its indecency standards (now with a new emphasis on profanity as well) – rather than on the underlying law. 

The question has generally been whether the FCC’s interpretation of the law is valid, and whether the FCC is applying that interpretation in a way that is not arbitrary and capricious.  The networks have every right to challenge the FCC’s interpretation and actions, as they are presently doing.  That does not make the networks lawbreakers, as Mr. Winter disingenuously implies.