For years, parents have worried about television exposing their children to violent, licentious, and vulgar images. If the TV industry won't stop broadcasting trashy shows, they have complained, at least it ought to provide families with advance warning about unsavory elements of its programming. The industry has finally responded, with a new rating system that professes to meet this parental request. But since the ratings are based on broad age categories, and omit specific information about the content of the shows, the industry's tepid solution is deeply flawed.
TV networks have now begun rating their shows according to age-appropriateness, just as the movie industry does. There are six categories: two for children's shows (appropriate for all ages, or only for kids over seven) and four for shows aimed at general viewership. These categories echo the rating system for movies: "TV-G," "TV-PG," "TV-14" (analogous to "PG-13" movies), and "TV-M," for viewers who are ostensibly "mature." These ratings are now published in newspaper TV listings and displayed briefly at the start of each program.
The TV industry's age-based approach, unfortunately, is more of a diversion than a concession. It conceals what kind of objectionable content-sex, violence, or profanity-prompted a particular rating, offering parents the smiling salesman's assurance: "Trust me." But at any given age, some children are far more impressionable and immature than others; even children within the same family may cope with adolescence in radically different ways. Furthermore, the new system lumps together different kinds of so-called adult content, as if a child is equally sensitive to all varieties of such material.
Worst of all, the new system leaves all judgments about the appropriateness of content to self-interested industry moguls-who have long opposed content labeling for fear of losing advertisers. In a Washington Post interview, 12-year-old Jessica Musikar got it right: "I read that 'TV-PG' stands for 'Too Vague, Parents Give up.'"
Movies, of course, have long been rated by age-appropriateness, but at least that system's flaws are mitigated by a raft of supplemental information published in newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet. Ordinarily, television programs are not preceded by advance "reviews" of their content. The TV listings in newspapers at best describe the plot in a sentence or two, leaving parents with only the industry's assurance that a specific show is good for every child of a certain age.
The much-touted V-chip will only be as helpful as the industry's ratings-that is, not terribly. The V-chip, to be installed in all television sets beginning next year, will screen TV programs only according to the industry's own rating system; until that system is improved, it will be incapable of subtler and more helpful judgments. Parents will be able to use V-chip technology to block individual programs or all shows with, say, a TV-M rating, but they will be no better equipped than they are now to evaluate specific show content and make viewing decisions adjusted to their children.
Fortunately, parents don't have to wait for an industry-generated or government-imposed solution. Several existing publications already provide content-based information about the offerings on television. Here are a few resources available to assist parents in regulating the tube:
Mark Honig, the executive director of the Parents Television Council, argues that the networks are not providing responsible programming. Exhibit A: the erosion of the networks' "family hour," the 8 to 9 p.m. time slot once set aside as a prime-time safety zone of programming for all ages.
Age-appropriate labeling, he says, does nothing to clean up the content or restore that family-friendly time. It may even become a excuse not to. Indeed, Honig believes that age-based ratings will be nearly useless as guides. "Parents feel ambushed, they don't know what's going to appear," he says. "They'll be watching a show rated PG, for example, and be ambushed by material they personally feel should have been PG-14 or R. They need enough information so they can tune out before they tune in."
"Tuning out," of course, is just what the industry and its advertisers fear. Honig discounts such concerns. "There is an audience for family-friendly entertainment," he says, "and the networks have a corporate responsibility to provide it."
The Parents Television Council has recently released its third annual Family Guide to Prime Time Television. The 40-page booklet reflects exhaustive research by PTC's parent organization, the Media Research Center, and offers "a brief background and thematic summary of every entertainment television show currently appearing on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN, and WB." Each show is rated with a stoplight signal. Green means "family-friendly," yellow "may be inappropriate for youngsters," and red warns of sex, violence, or language that could render it "unsuitable for children."
For example, ABC's popular situation comedy Home Improvement rates a green light. "The Taylors, a secure family unit, stand out in a TV landscape littered with atypical or dysfunctional families," according to the guide. "The husband and wife work through their everyday marital problems, and enjoy a stronger, more secure marriage as a result. They serve as positive role models to their children, teaching them about honesty, the importance of education, and respect for one another."
Frasier, an NBC sitcom, rates a yellow light and a careful analysis. "Frasier gets its laughs with wit, not vulgarity. But characters' sexual antics-ranging from a smattering of one-night stands to the title character's torrid affair with his boss-frequently take center stage, and are depicted as an integral part of dating in the 90s. The series, however, draws the line at flagrant promiscuity: One licentious character, who regularly alludes to her sexual exploits, is often chastised for her behavior."
One program that rates a red light is Fox's Married with Children, described as "the antithesis of family viewing." In addition to the stream of insults between family members, "lascivious jokes and bathroom humor are the hallmarks of every episode, traditional values are ridiculed, and promiscuity is promoted." Until recently, Married with Children was broadcast at 7 p.m., when even the young children could tune in.
The Family Guide to Prime Time Television covers the 1996-97 season of programming with a color-coded viewing schedule. Copies cost $9.95, but are provided free to members, along with other benefits. Contact: Parents Television Council, 333 South Grand Ave., Suite 2900, Los Angeles, Calif. 90071. Tel.: 213-621-2506, Web site: http://www.mediaresearch.org
Family Entertainment Review, an overstuffed monthly magazine, was launched in September 1995 as a result of an "epiphany," according to associate editor David Baíz. The magazine was founded by Charlie Gilreath, a music promoter and manager of successful recording artists. When his young stepdaughter asked him to explain a song lyric that made even him blush, he found himself stammering some euphemistic reply. She corrected him: "Unh-unh-it means something really gross."
Gilreath founded the magazine to provide parents with matter-of-fact summaries of the lyrics of popular songs, so they could make informed decisions about what they allow inside the house. The publication's mandate has widened, and now includes reviews of music, television, film, World Wide Web sites, and software. Each 64-page issue is packed; there are 300-plus reviews of records alone. The magazine attempts to be as unbiased as possible-just the bare facts about the content of a show, song, or computer program, with no judgment of merit. "We've been condemned by both the right and the left," Baíz says. But, he says, it tries to maintain an editorial stance of "Swiss neutrality."
Baíz admits that the publication's television offerings are at present "paltry," with only a few sentences describing upcoming shows. Therein lies the problem: unlike other publications, which review past episodes or describe a series overall, Family Entertainment Review would like to tell parents what's ahead in each episode.
But obtaining previews of programs has so far been impossible. "They'll give us, 'In tonight's show, Bud is going to the market and he gets robbed,'" Baíz says. "You could get that from TV Guide. Well, we don't want to be TV Guide." Reviewing every show would be impossible, but "even if we could just review the top 20 shows, it would be very helpful. But we've met with no cooperation from the industry."
There are production problems as well. Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, says many shows (especially sitcoms that depend on topical humor) produce each episode just a week or so before broadcast. A monthly magazine like Baíz's might need to finalize its contents six weeks before it arrives in a subscriber's mailbox. A show that airs on the subscriber's TV that night may not have even been conceived, much less written, before the magazine's deadline.
Nevertheless, Wharton says his group is meeting with executives in major production companies "who are parents and are fed up, too. We'll be developing ways to get as much information in advance as possible-if not finished shows, then scripts."
But what of the industry's complaint that describing 2,000 shows a day is impossible? "How many food items go on grocery shelves every day?" Gilreath asks. "And yet they manage to list all the ingredients in each one. It's only difficult if you don't want to do something. But whether the industry likes it or not, we're going to end up there."
Even without preview copies, the spunky publication does its best with what it's got. The December issue featured 43 reviews of shows to appear over the holiday season. A made-for-TV movie titled Lying Eyes is described this way: "Concerns a high-school senior who finds herself a target for murder when her secret affair with an older attorney turns sour. Probably written by an older attorney."
The present form of the publication may be transitional. "We have a three-to-five year plan to make the reviews available to viewers as they watch TV," Gilreath says. "As telephone, TV, and computer meld in the future, you'll be able to point and click on a corner of the TV screen and pull down our review."
Inquiring parental minds will find Family Entertainment Review a comprehensive and energetic guide to many forms of popular entertainment. A subscriptions costs $36 for 12 issues, $18 for six. Contact: P.O. Box 81, Hollywood, Calif. 90078. Tel.: 1-800-811-9086. Web site: http://www.familyentertainment.net.
"AFA Backers Bury Bochco" reads the headline on the cover of the January AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association. It's suggestive of the tone of the magazine, and of the evangelical Christian organization as a whole. "We're very activist-oriented," says editor Randall Murphree. "It's something we've incorporated into our work from the early years."
The maxim here is simple: Knowledge is power. The monthly offers copious reviews of prime-time shows, but its activist bent encourages parents to use them for more than viewing decisions. The reviews identify the advertisers of each program, and an "Action Index" gives the name of each advertiser's parent corporation, the name of its CEO, its address and phone number, and a list of other products offered by that company. Readers are encouraged to contact the sponsors of shows they find objectionable and make their opinions known.
Producer Steven Bochco's sitcom Public Morals, for example, has been put "on hiatus" by CBS, even though 12 expensive episodes have already been completed. "The inclusion of the phrase 'p - - - y posse' jolted pro-family groups, led by the AFA, to petition local CBS stations not to air the program and to ask advertisers not to bankroll the production. Co-creator Jay Tarses said that this letter-writing campaign forced CBS to change the show's dialogue and cancel the pilot episode."
Such campaigns have led to changes of heart among advertisers as well. Clorox and Grand Metropolitan (the parent of Burger King), "didn't want to dialogue prior to our announcement of a boycott," says Murphree. "Once that announcement was made, they were willing to come to the table." Both firms voted to change their advertising policies in AFA's favor.
The organization has been monitoring television shows for almost 20 years. A typical recent issue singled out 53 episodes of TV shows for criticism, and the comments were very specific: a code at the top of each review indicated whether the show contained anti-Christian comments, promotion of homosexuality, profanity (and how many profanities were uttered), "politically correct" treatment of an issue, sex, substance abuse, or violence. A plus sign indicates a "positive theme with no objectionable elements (a good story told with profane language does not earn a commendation)."
Some readers may find the tone of the reviews too combative for their taste, but the publication can't be faulted for imprecision. Parents whose values overlap only partly with those of the AFA will have ample information to make their own decisions. A review of the October 29, 1996, episode of Roseanne, for example, is preceded by codes for anti-Christian content, homosexuality, substance abuse, and number of profanities (15): "Roseanne, her sister Jackie and their lesbian friend Nancy attend a New York party. Roseanne and Jackie get drunk. In a fantasy parody of the Virgin Birth, witches tell Roseanne that Satan chose Darlene (Roseanne's pregnant daughter) to bear his son, and she should be honored. Advertisers: Walt Disney, Grand Met."
Seven episodes earn the label "The Good Stuff," and even here the reviews are nuanced. An episode of Touched by an Angel is praised, but with a caution: "The episode acknowledges that one goes to heaven by calling out to God. Jesus Christ, however, is never mentioned. Entertainment value is high, [Christian] theology lacking."
The AFA Journal includes columns, news briefs, and feature stories on many aspects of the entertainment industry, but reviews only television shows. The monthly is available for $15 per year (bulk prices available for churches).
Contact: P.O. Drawer 2440, Tupelo, Miss. 38803. Tel.: 601-844-5036. Web site: http://www.afa.net.
Published by Focus on the Family, Plugged In is an eight-page monthly newsletter that offers a concise guide for befuddled parents. In its short space, it gives brief content descriptions of an array of entertainment offerings-film, TV, video, and rock music, both secular and Christian.
Each issue analyzes one television show in greater depth than any other publication has done. Over the course of five recent issues, analyst Steve Isaacs reviewed Walker, Texas Ranger; Second Noah; Hercules; Spin City; and Suddenly Susan. Consistent with Plugged In's style, Isaacs highlights positive qualities, even in shows he ultimately condemns.
The cautious, even-handed approach is a part of the magazine's basic philosophy. "Our primary goal is to open communications between parents and their teens," Isaac says, "and to do that, parents need to be aware of what their teens are interested in. Parents can then teach critical thinking as their teens approach popular culture."
If the magazine also "doubles as a guide" to acceptable or unacceptable fare, that's incidental. "We don't like to tell people You should or shouldn't do this,'" Isaac says. "We want to give the positive and negative and leave it there. Parents should discuss it and make decisions based on their own conscience." He says some parents are too ready to accept marching orders from outside sources. "If our confidence in their personal ability to make decisions is not deserved, we try to build up that capacity. After all, if you take what we say at face value, you'll take the next thing at face value as well."
Thus Walker, Texas Ranger is recognized for "anti-drug, anti-gang, and anti-slavery themes [which] are indeed noble," but these brighter notes are overshadowed because "the ferocious depiction of brutality always seems to get center stage." Isaacs supports his view with detailed summaries of five episodes. Hercules has its high points: "deep compassion for human suffering . . . equity and justice . . . unconditional friendship toward an unlovable [character]." But the hero's movements of conscience "remain stranded in a mire of polytheism, mythology, sorcery and demonology . . . thematic violence and a bevy of brazen women whose attire is way too risqué."
Plugged In is a useful guide to intelligent decision-making for television-wary parents. A one-year subscription costs $20. Contact: Focus on the Family Plugged In, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995. Tel.: 800-232-6459.
Publications: Better Viewing This bimonthly recommends TV shows and carries thoughtful articles on the medium and its messages. Cost: $9.97 a year, 800-216-2225.
Kids First! Directory No gratuitous sex or violence, no gender or racial biases that's the claim for titles endorsed in this guide to videos and software. Send $25 membership fee for a video directory and newsletter, 505-989-8076.
Parents' Choice This quarterly periodical recommends TV shows, films, videos, records, and books for kids. Send $20 a year to Box 185, Waban, Mass. 02168.
Entertainment Monitor A bimonthly describing CDs, films, computer games, TV shows. See http://www.safesurf.com for an excerpt. $3.95 per issue, 800-777-7106.Internet Sites
MPAA Home PageThe Motion Picture Association of America's Web site describes its rating system and offers a database of all films rated since 1995, including reasons behind the ratings (http://www.mpaa.org).
Parental Discretion Reviews of movie and video releases, citing age appropriateness (http://www.altura.com/ParentalD).Books & Tapes
Television: Manna from Hollywood? by Quentin Schultze (Zondervan) Parents, students, educators and pastors will find this a helpful discussion as they struggle to use television constructively in their lives.
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman (Penguin) The author argues that television's obsession with entertainment undermines critical thinking and public discourse.
"Television and Christian Discipleship," lecture by Ken Myers (Mars Hill Audio) Myers critiques the "structural" problems of television-viewing, such as its impact on relationships and styles of communication. Sixty-minute tape. Call 800-331-6407.