Commentary

Should The Sopranos Be Censored?

By Adam D. Thierer
June 4, 2004

Like millions of other Americans, I will be glued to my television set on Sunday night watching the season finale of HBO’s critically acclaimed series The Sopranos to see who “gets it,” or even just to hear Tony or one of his mobster buddies say “Forgetaboutit!” one last time this season.

But one person who definitely won’t be watching The Sopranos finale on Sunday night is my young daughter. The violence, profanity, and sexual content are not something I want her exposed to. I’m not sure what the right age is for children to see such programming, but at the point my wife and I think she’s ready, we’ll talk to her about such shows before we sit down to watch them with her.

While all parents face this same dilemma of figuring out what to let their children watch, the choice my wife and I make for our child may not be the same choice the couple across the street makes for their kids. But that’s the nature of life in a free society. It’s filled with tough choices, especially when it comes to raising kids.

There is another alternative, of course. Our government could decide for us which shows are best for our children, or perhaps just determine which hours of the day certain shows could be aired in an attempt to shield our children’s eyes and ears from them. While there are some who would welcome such a move, I would hope that there are still some other parents like me out there who aren’t comfortable with the idea of calling in Uncle Sam to play the role of surrogate parent. When government acts to restrict what our children can see or hear, those restrictions bind the rest of us as well, including the millions of Americans who have no children at all.

Even if lawmakers have the best interests of children in mind, I take great offense at the notion that government officials must do this job for me and every other American family. Censorship on an individual/parental level is a fundamental part of being a good parent. But censorship at a governmental level is an entirely different matter because it means a small handful of individuals get to decide what the whole nation is permitted to see, hear or think.

OK, OK… enough of the heated rhetoric, you say. This guy is just huffin’-and-puffin’ about some Orwellian scenario that doesn’t exist in this country and never could. After all, nobody’s seriously talking about censoring The Sopranos or anything else on cable TV, right? They’re just talking about the censoring broadcasters, who really don’t get that much heat from regulators anyway, correct?

Wrong on both counts. Building on the momentum of the new indecency witch hunt that is driving many talk shows hosts off broadcast radio, and has television shows like “E.R.” altering their content to keep censors happy, lawmakers are now putting cable and satellite programming in their crosshairs. There are discussions taking place in Congress today about “codes of conduct” for cable TV, and even a government-approved “family-friendly” tier on cable systems. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, which oversees media industry regulation, recently told a crowd of cable industry officials that censorship of pay TV is “an issue whose time is coming. I think we’re approaching the time when whatever we apply to the broadcasters, in some way, voluntarily or involuntarily, is going to be applied to cable.”

Step back for a moment and think about what this means for popular cable programs such as FX’s The Shield, Comedy Central’s South Park or The Daily Show, Showtime’s Queer as Folk or The L Word, or any of the amazing programs that air Sundays on HBO in addition to The Sopranos (Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood.) Are we worse off for having these shows in this world? Some policymakers apparently think so and have — in the name of “protecting the children” — put the creative community on notice that they no longer have the artistic freedom to make such programs on their own terms. And Americans who have grown to love such shows will be forced to live with sanitized version of these programs. (Would a bleeped, “kiddie-approved” version of The Sopranos even be worth watching?)

Parents need to stand up and tell the government to stay out of their business and then get down to the serious business of educating their children about the realities of this world, including what we see and hear in the media today. Government censorship is never a good solution in a free society. As Tony Soprano would say, “Forgetaboutit!”

Adam Thierer is director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute.