February 6, 1996 in City

Let’s Take Action Against Smut TV

Jane R. Eisner Knight-Ridder
 
Tags:column

By now, the trend is established; the deed is done. It began about a year ago, became noticeable in the fall, was solidified by the winter season.

The prime-time TV “family hour” is gone - gone the way of the rotary telephone - a relic now preserved only in black-and-white reruns on the Nickelodeon cable TV network.

There is hardly a pretense left, not even a glancing reference by television’s executives to the notion that some subjects, some scenes, some words are not appropriate for children who may have outgrown “Sesame Street” but surely are not ready for bed at 8 o’clock.

It seemed to happen in the blink of a commercial. First, upstart Fox TV discarded the convention of a “family hour” and began broadcasting shows sprinkled with off-color remarks and laden with schoolyard-level sexual humor. The networks, breathlessly chasing the almighty advertising dollar like hounds in a hunt, eagerly followed suit.

Then “Friends,” the successful twentysomething sitcom, was moved from its 9:30 p.m. slot to the formerly smut-proof 8 o’clock hour, and virtually all attempts to create a family-friendly environment in prime time were abandoned.

So, on “Ellen” one night last month, our sympathies were directed to a pretty but ditzy woman who seemed to be getting dumped by a man with whom she had had a wild one-night stand until she turned the tables and announced that she was, indeed, married. Oh.

And on “Mad About You,” Jamie and Paul - who actually are married - talked non-stop to everyone about their plans to conceive in a whirl of midafternoon passion that unfortunately was interrupted by the news from Paul’s sister that she had decided, after some wild sex of her own, to live with a woman.At least Paul’s mother was stopped from jumping out the window.

These are, actually, rather witty shows, with likable characters. Hip with heart. In freewheeling, amoral America, this kind of situational humor justifiably could find its way onto national television. At 10 o’clock. Maybe 9:30.

But 8 p.m.? A time when, after the dishes have been done, homework finished, piano practiced, the dog walked, families who don’t even consider themselves couch potatoes might just want to flop down in the den and turn on the tube “together”?

Network executives - masters of programming not only their lineups but also their public pronouncements - have responded with an endless round of justification. Their line of reasoning goes something like this:

Real people talk and act this way. Real people find this funny.

Advertisers lust after the 18- to 49-year-old consumer; networks are supposed to make money, not baby-sit children. And - wink, wink - the hobbled Federal Communications Commission and the Wild West Congress won’t say a word.

Besides, what’s wrong with ending the “Friends” episode about a lesbian wedding with a gross penis joke? A kindergartner won’t get it.

Let’s refute them a step at a time.

Not all Americans talk this way and act this way, and many don’t want their young children to.

Even if the boundaries of acceptable speech and behavior are expanding, the rate of change doesn’t come close to the runaway trends in TV language and behavior. One researcher found that the use of profanity, epithets and scatological words on TV had increased 45 percent from 1990 to 1994 - and 94 percent in the traditional “family hour.”

Another study found that 40 percent of the sexual behaviors recorded in prime time, and often accompanied by a laugh track, fit the legal definition of sexual harassment.

No, most of us don’t act this way.

Whether viewers think smut TV is funny is a subjective assessment, but research is beginning to show it is harmful. A report funded by the Kaiser Family Foundation and released in September concluded that the media’s “love affair with sex and romance” contributes to irresponsible sexual behavior among young people, including unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.

So, the penis joke may go over the head of the kindergartner. But believe me, the second-grader will hear it and repeat it at school, and soon 8-year-olds will be spouting the kind of language that should make both the Christian Coalition and the gay rights community steaming mad.

Network executives think they can fall back on the old American capitalist mantra: It’s what the market demands. If competition from cable TV and videos drives free-spending viewers from the Big Three networks, the execs argue, then anything is permissible to woo those viewers back. It’s the parents - not the government, certainly not corporate America - who should be more responsible.

For the moment, let’s put aside the counterargument that the networks exist only because they are granted access to public airwaves. Let’s ignore the fact that even a devoted parent can find it just about impossible to judge the content of every TV show single-handedly. Let’s grant the networks their market analysis.

And then let’s beat them at their own game.

Don’t watch. Don’t let your kids watch. Complain loudly to the networks. Complain to their advertisers. Boycott the advertisers.

Ensure that when you finally get a new V-chip, it blocks out not only violence but also offensive sexual themes. Make the folks who are polluting TV extremely uncomfortable.

Let them know there are plenty of us in the sought-after 18- to 49-year-old market who don’t want to be assaulted by lewd talk and offensive sexual jokes when we’ve barely digested dinner.

We are not asking for only “Masterpiece Theater” and “I Love Lucy.” We just want shows we can watch with our kids.

And we surely don’t want to move to the Midwest. There, the smut starts at 7.

xxxx

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