If Comedy Central ever had a reputation for being an “edgy” channel it has lost it now. The story of the channel’s decision to, uh, tinker with episode 201 of South Park ought to be well known to many who look at this blog, but some useful background can be found, courtesy of the New York Times here.
The story begins with episode 200:
On April 14 Comedy Central broadcast the 200th episode of “South Park,” a cartoon that Trey Parker and Matt Stone have produced for that channel since 1997. In honor of the occasion, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone populated the episode with nearly all the famous people their show has lampooned in its history, including celebrities like Tom Cruise and Barbra Streisand, as well as major religious figures, like Moses, Jesus and Buddha. Cognizant that Islam forbids the depiction of its holiest prophet, Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker showed their “South Park” characters agonizing over how to bring Muhammad to their fictional Colorado town. At first the character said to be Muhammad is confined to a U-Haul trailer, and is heard speaking but is not shown. Later in the episode the character is let out of the trailer, dressed in a bear costume.
That triggered an ominous comment from precisely one Muslim website, and here’s what happened next:
In a new episode of “South Park” broadcast Wednesday on Comedy Central, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone exercised a degree of self-censorship. In continuing the previous week’s story line about the Prophet Muhammad, that character was hidden underneath a “CENSORED” graphic, and an audio bleep was heard when his name was said. But in a message that appeared Thursday morning on SouthParkStudios.com, the Web site of Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker’s company, the studio said that Comedy Central had imposed further changes to the show. “After we delivered the show, and prior to broadcast, Comedy Central placed numerous additional audio bleeps throughout the episode,” the message said. It added that the network was not allowing the episode to be streamed on the Web site, where “South Park” shows generally appear after they are broadcast on Comedy Central.A spokesman for Comedy Central confirmed on Thursday that the network had added more bleeps to the episode than were in the version delivered by South Park Studios, and that it was not permitting the episode to be shown on the studio’s Web site.
That’s appalling. Nevertheless Comedy Central (a part of Viacom) is privately owned and it has the right not to show whatever it wants. That said, it would be interesting to know if Viacom will react in quite the same way to the now-inevitable complaints from other religious groups “offended” by the portrayal of one of their holy men in a future Comedy Central show. If it does not cave in to those complaints, it should attempt to defend the double standard – in all its humiliating detail. And if it does cave in, it will have provided yet another helpful example of just how corrosive to freedom of speech the fear of “giving offense” really is.