Cover Story

Don't look now

When executives unveiled their television ratings system in 1997, WORLD predicted that far from making TV more family-friendly, it would worsen an already bad TV lineup. As happened with movie ratings, warning labels, we believed, would only provide a cover-and even an advertisement-for ever raunchier programming (see WORLD, Feb. 8, 1997). Now new studies by the Parents Television Council bear out this prediction: Sex, profanity, violence, and other kinds of immorality have soared and invaded even the "family hour" that was supposed to be a safe haven for children's viewing. Don't look now: A new season is upon us.

Issue: "The fall(en) TV season," Sept. 18, 1999

Set aside daytime television, with its salacious soap operas and voyeuristic talk shows. Set aside the late-night programming for insomniac adults. For over two decades, the networks have reserved early evening time slots for shows the whole family could watch, saving more controversial fare for times when children are, presumably, asleep. So what is happening during the so-called family hour, when supper is over but the kids' bedtime hasn't come yet? The Parents Television Council-a subsidiary of the conservative think tank the Media Research Center-took a look. The organization studied the programming of major non-cable networks between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. (Eastern time) over a two-week period and found that:

  • Two-thirds of the family-hour shows contain sexual references.
  • Despite the post-Columbine handwringing about Hollywood violence, the amount of violence portrayed during the family hour has actually doubled since two years ago, when a similar study was made. Foul language is up 58 percent.
  • Language once regarded as taboo-the various B-words and A-words and religious words used for cursing-is now the common parlance of the TV world. Sitcoms once content with subtle innuendoes now make explicit sex jokes. Dramas once sprinkled with fistfights and bloodless shootouts now revel in showing rotting corpses and people burning alive. Not that the networks have simply abandoned the family hour. They still use this slot to target young people. But those shows aimed directly at the youth market-such as That 70's Show, Beverly Hills 90210, and Dawson's Creek-are among the worst offenders, full of bad language and teenage sexuality. According to the Parents Television Council study, Fox is the biggest offender, averaging 11 instances of objectionable material per hour. That amounts to something cringe-worthy every five and a half minutes-not counting commercials. And this is when children are watching. The second most offensive network is NBC, with 9.63 cases of bad stuff in an hour. CBS performed best, with a relatively chaste 3.62 offenses per hour. For TV as a whole, negative elements occur an average of seven times per hour, a 75 percent increase over a year ago. The new fall season promises to be even worse. Critics are hailing the shows receiving the most hype as "envelope pushers." Most of the new programs WORLD has previewed-such as Action (Sept. 11) and Get Real (see accompanying review)--deserve contempt. Why is this happening? For one thing, shows that depend on titillation rather than creativity must, by their very nature, constantly ratchet up the sleaze. What once gives the thrill of transgression becomes so familiar, after a while, that it fails to stimulate, as drug and porn addicts know. The dosage has to increase, the sex must be more and more perverse, for that same old buzz. Isn't this what the ratings system was supposed to cure? It's had the opposite effect, says Mark Honig, executive director of the Parents Television Council. "The networks push the envelope further. They're saying, 'It's rated, now we can do whatever we want.'" Mr. Honig has data to back up his claim. Another PTC study, "Unwanted Consequences: With Rating System in Place, TV More Offensive Than Ever," detailed evidence that shows how programs became raunchier as the rating system was implemented and became more and more descriptive. Now the networks can reply to outraged parents by saying, "Well, it was rated PG, so why did you let your child watch it?" Other than that, the ratings are so inconsistent and haphazard as to be meaningless. TV-PG and TV-14 shows contain little to distinguish them, with one just as likely to have negative elements as the other. Other than the sobering holocaust drama Schindler's List, the networks have never used the most restrictive TV-M rating. Schindler's List is one show that, arguably, teenagers should see. According to the rating system, teenagers would be excluded from Schindler's List, with its moral themes, so that instead they could watch the witchcraft soap Charmed, which is rated TV-PG. Presumably, the rating system could have an effect used in conjunction with the program-blocking technology of the V-chip, now becoming available in this year's new television sets. But if TV-PGs are little different from TV-14s-and if nearly every evening program is rated TV-PG-a conscientious use of the V-chip will result only in a lot of blue screens. One might as well stop watching TV altogether-which, of course, is not a bad idea. It would seem that the growing decadence of network TV flies against all logic and the networks' own economic self-interest. Viewership on the major networks has been declining as their shows become more offensive. Most of last year's envelope-pushers were abject bombs. Conversely, relatively wholesome shows were big hits. The generically spiritual Touched by an Angel remains one of the most popular shows on television, with ratings that consistently put it in the top five of most-watched shows every week. Normally, one would expect such a blockbuster to inspire imitators, but it has only rarely happened. Seventh Heaven, about a minister and his family, is one such imitation, and it has been a big hit, too. Seventh Heaven is by far the Warner Brothers Network's most successful show, but producers pour most of their energy into teenage sex-and-fashion soap operas. Executives cancel family favorites such as Promised Land and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman even though they outscore the sleazy shows the brass renews. Why? One reason Hollywood programs against its own self-interest is probably the hipness factor. Denizens of the Hollywood culture want to be cool above all else. Many producers, directors, and writers would rather be associated with a show that "pushes the envelope"-even if it is a colossal failure-than a project their friends on the cocktail circuit might consider corny. The television industry also talks about reaching a "preferred audience". Supposedly, advertisers want to reach the 18-30 crowd because these are the consumers who are still forming their buying habits. Older people, perhaps set in their ways, are not so susceptible to the siren song of advertising. To reach the age group most easily manipulated, programs have to appeal to their juvenile sense of humor and their obsession with sex. This is why networks actually charge more for commercials on low-rated shows for swinging singles than they do for positive shows that are far more popular. The latter, they say, "skew old." Thus, wholesome shows don't count, no matter how many viewers they draw, and many sleazy shows stay in production no matter how often they tank. Some advertisers are questioning this practice. We are willing, they are saying, to advertise on a whole range of programs to reach a whole range of consumers. The problem is that they cannot find enough family-oriented shows to sponsor. Many companies are finding themselves embarrassed by what they are sponsoring, their corporate image tainted by the cultural pollution they fund. More than 30 major corporate sponsors-including giants such as Proctor & Gamble, which spends upwards of $1.2 billion on TV advertising-have formed a coalition known as the Family Friendly Programming Forum. Their purpose is to push networks to develop positive family programming and to support it with their advertising dollars. So far, the group has mostly held forums and is sponsoring the new Family Program Awards to recognize-and, they hope, encourage-positive programs. Now the group is moving beyond talk. The Forum has arranged with Warner Brothers Network to provide financial support for the development of family-friendly pilots-program treatments and sample episodes that the network will consider picking up as new series. Eleven of the members-Ameritech, AT&T, General Motors, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Nationwide, Pfizer, Proctor & Gamble, Sears, Warner-Lambert, and Wendy's-have put up $1 million for the purpose. To be sure, some Family Friendly Programming Forum members continue to sponsor trash. The FFPF's Robin Webster told The Washington Post that homosexual teenage sex and conventional sex are "OK" if there is "value in the message." Still, sponsors' uneasiness is a good sign. And families' tuning out the networks altogether is an even better sign. Even some Hollywood insiders conceded they have gone too far. "There is a slowly growing percentage of people in the business," says TV writer William Blinn, "who are saying we may have gone off the tracks a little bit, may have taken that curve at too high a rate of speed." He adds, "Family-friendly programming does not have to be devoid of thought. It doesn't have to be syrupy, sugary, or empty-headed." Indeed. It is today's programming that is largely "devoid of thought" and "empty-headed." During the so-called "Golden Age of Television," not a single program-the probing dramas of Playhouse Ninety, the brilliant comedy of The Jack Benny Show, the mind-challenging plots of The Twilight Zone-needed a rating more severe than G. And yet, today's Hollywood culture-which tends to be so clueless about moral and spiritual issues-may lack the foundation for genuine reform. As an example of "thoughtful" family drama, Mr. Blinn cited his TV movie A Question of Love, about a child-custody battle fought by a lesbian couple. As homosexuals try to wrap themselves in the mantle of "family values"-"you mustn't just think in terms of traditional families"-we may have less profanity, violence, and explicit sex, but an even deeper assault on moral truth. So is our popular culture bottoming out, gone as far as it can go, so that an upturn is the only option? Or will it go lower? That remains to be seen. But the consequences of a depraved entertainment culture are not only moral and spiritual, though these are the most important. Social and even political consequences flow from it. It may be that, if these trends continue, the next millennium will see a rerun of late Roman "bread and circuses": the policy of keeping the people well-fed and entertained-by means of bloody gladiator fights and decadent sex-so that they will be politically docile. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley envisioned a future where a totalitarian system kept the citizens solidly under control by using virtual-reality media, drugs, and sex fantasies, to keep the populace in a constant state of dazed pleasure. No one cared about self-rule, as long as they were taken care of. No one cared about even having families, with sex a mere recreation, reproduction handled by test tubes, and the state taking care of raising children. Are we headed toward a day-in the words of conservative movie critic James Bowman-in which "the right to watch smut is the only one we'll still possess"?

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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