When the television industry pats itself on the back for protecting children with ratings, parental advisories, and wholesome educational programming, it is instructive to see what children are actually watching. Now that we can break down the Nielsen ratings to measure what specific demographics and age groups are watching, we can study the juvenile tastes of TV's mostly unsupervised juvenile viewers.
The No. 1 show among children from 2 to 17 is The Simpsons. Close behind is the show that comes next on Sunday nights, Malcolm in the Middle. One could make the case that these are among the best-written shows on television. But they are definitely for adults, not just because they are sometimes crude but because they are so sophisticated, with their irony, satire, and twisted cultural allusions that go far beyond the ken of most 10-year-olds. What they probably do get and find hilariously satisfying is the premise of both shows: a smart-alecky kid behaving badly who has really, really stupid parents.
Often, the viewing habits of kids and teenagers are exactly the same as those of the adults. Thus, Survivor: The Australian Outback, the nation's No. 1 show, was also one of the top-rated shows for children. The bad language, the innuendoes, the pig-slaughtering did not matter. Here was a show for the entire family.
Other times, though, young people are eating up programs that the adults are ignoring, even though they are adult fare. WWF Smackdown!-an attempt to make professional wrestling even more vulgar than it has always been, by bringing in scantily clad women and soap opera intrigues-should be a failure on the scale of the XFL. The total ratings indicate that out of 188 programs surveyed, it ranks 104th in popularity. But among children between the ages of 6 and 17, it is a top 10 show.
According to Philadelphia Daily News writer Ellen Gray, WWF Smackdown! is huge among the preschool set. She reports that, during one ratings period, its audience included some 383,000 two- to five-year-olds.
The Nielsen ratings did not give figures for PBS nor for cable networks that specialize in children's fare, such as the Cartoon Channel or Nickelodeon. Those outlets often put out good but popular children's programming such as Blue's Clues from Nickelodeon. That network's Rugrats and The Wild Thornberries regularly make the cable top 10 lists, so children are definitely watching.
On the other hand, children are also definitely watching other cable networks, such as MTV. Its most popular series is Jackass, a reality-based program featuring stupid human tricks, often involving excrement, people jumping off buildings, or other people setting themselves on fire. Every week the program draws some 2.8 million viewers, with 2 of 5 under 18 years old.
The show purportedly protects its viewers by flashing "don't try this at home" warnings. They also slapped a TV14 rating on the program, meaning that it is not appropriate for children under 14. So that should take care of the network's responsibility. But already three children-one 13, one 12, and one 11-have suffered serious injuries when they set themselves on fire, emulating a Jackass stunt (see WORLD, "Teenager see, teenager do," May 12). Too bad they didn't realize that when the guy on TV did it, he was wearing a flame-retarding suit.
When we see what shows children are actually watching-and what their favorites are-it is evident that parental advisory labels, whether TVPG or TV14, are not keeping them away from adult programming in any appreciable numbers. As for the V-chip, that technological panacea touted by the Clinton administration and mandated by Congress-a device that allows parents to program their TV sets so they won't show programs above a pre-set rating advisory-hardly anyone is using it.
Children are essentially watching whatever they want to watch. Parents, on the whole, are not interfering with their children's viewing pleasure.
This does not necessarily mean that children are watching programs that are too mature for them. Judging from the bodily function jokes, the giggling innuendoes, and the crude slapstick that dominates the TV14 sitcoms-all characteristics of middle-school humor-it may be that the "adult shows" are too immature. When grownups have the same taste as children, both demographics are in big trouble.
For all of its faults, Malcolm in the Middle features a strong, controlling mother, at whose word her children tremble. Not many kids today have someone like that policing their TV viewing. Maybe that's why they are such fans of her show.