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Shifting limits of modesty

Published Aug. 24, 2005

When the BBC recently announced it would air Jerry Springer: The Opera, the West End hit famous for its vulgarity and a cast of characters including transsexuals and a man wearing a diaper, no one batted an eye.

In Britain, after all, the biggest-selling daily newspaper carries a photograph of a bare-breasted woman every day.

The musical inspired by the self-consciously salacious talk show will air uncut, though in keeping with the country's rules it will be shown after 9 p.m. with a warning that it may not be appropriate for children.

In Europe, people often regard U.S. rules about indecency on public airways _ and their enforcement by the Federal Communication Commission _ as puritanical.

(The FCC's powers apply to broadcast TV and radio. It has no powers regarding cable TV, newspapers, the Internet or satellite radio.)

"The climate in the U.K. is much more liberal than in the United States regarding the kind of sexual content that there is on TV," said professor David Buckingham, a specialist in television at London University. "The Janet Jackson breast incident at the Super Bowl probably wouldn't have attracted much interest here."

Still, the issue is debated in Europe, too.

In Germany, where each state has its own agency to keep an eye on what airs on television and radio, there's a lot of leeway about nudity and sexuality, especially compared with the United States. Recently, the mass-market Bild daily newspaper ran a front-page story _ complete with a topless photo _ suggesting that a star's full-frontal nude scenes were cut from her TV movie because she wasn't pretty enough.

Last year, a new national media commission was set up to promote standards for TV, radio and the Internet. It was a response to a 2002 school massacre in Erfurt, Germany, carried out by a former student who authorities believe may have been inspired by violent video games.

The panel has gone so far as to order that reality TV shows about cosmetic surgery _ including a German version of the beauty contest show The Swan _ be shown after 11 p.m., because it was concerned that such programs sent the wrong message to children about "human worth."

Stations that break the rule can be heavily fined.

In addition, the popular German version of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! _ in which German stars performed stomach-turning stunts _ prompted some hand-wringing this year. But no ban was considered, on the grounds of freedom of speech.

In Italy, the Communications Authority ruled in 2002 that every "adults only" TV program must air after 10:30 p.m. and be announced as unsuitable for children. Films shown on television also contain a color-coded rating regarding their suitability for youths.

Despite that, daily Italian TV is full of examples of scandalous shows.

Earlier this year, a new show featuring people undergoing plastic surgery called Bisturi! Nessuno e' Perfetto ("Scalpel! No One is Perfect") stunned many viewers.

It featured a flat-chested young woman baring her breasts to the scalpel for implant surgery. The knife sliced through flesh, blood spurted, and viewers deluged the network's switchboard with calls of protest. Consumer groups urged Rome prosecutors to consider obscenity charges, but the show has not been fined or suspended.

In Russia, TV shows that are considered too racy for children must be shown after 11 p.m. _ after which some stations show fairly explicit erotica. But there's a debate under way now about the possibility of the harmful effects of TV violence.

In November, Russia's lower house of parliament unanimously approved _ in its first of three readings _ a sweeping bill that would ban showing "dead bodies, scenes of murder, beatings, the infliction of serious, medium and light injuries, and rape and other violent activity of a sexual nature."

Critics derided the draft as draconian, saying it would not differentiate between action flicks or scenes of violence. Media analysts said such a law also would muzzle journalists' coverage of stories involving violence.