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Why Parents Hate TV

Wednesday, May 1, 1996

Over the past few months, the V-chip has quickly become the most celebrated piece of computer circuitry in America. In swift succession, President Clinton championed this little byte of technology in his State of the Union address, Congress passed legislation mandating its use, and the major networks grumbled loudly about challenging the law in court. The drama finally culminated in February at a summit at the White House, where the TV industry's chieftains grudgingly accepted the president's challenge to do more for America's parents and create a ratings system compatible with the V-chip.

          The story of the V-chip unfolded so fast, and its potential impact is so great, that the media has spent most of its time struggling to answer a host of basic questions: How does this signal-blocking technology work? When will it be available? How much will it cost? Will it live up to its billing? Some are still not even sure what the "V" actually stands for. (It originally stood for "violence," but it seems everyone has their own interpretation. I hope it comes to mean "values.")

          As a Senate cosponsor of the V-chip bill along with Democrat Kent Conrad, I know these details matter, but I also believe the media's focus on them has obscured a larger point. Far more important than what the "V" stands for is what the coming of the V-chip tells us about the public's plummeting regard for the product that television delivers to our homes. Although this invention may merely be an irritant to those in the television business, to millions of Americans the V-chip is a surrogate for their anger at the entertainment industry for degrading our culture and our society.

          That anger is clearly reflected in any number of public opinion polls, which uniformly show that the public is fed up with the rising tide of sex, violence, and vulgarity in the entertainment media. These surveys are useful, but based on my conversations with people in diners, schools, and small businesses back in Connecticut, I believe they barely begin to measure the public's intense feelings toward television.

          My experience tells me that beneath the surface of the Telecommunications Revolution bubbles a revolution of another kind -- a "Revolt of the Revolted," as William Bennett and I have taken to calling it. It is being fueled by a growing sense that our culture is not only out of touch with the values of mainstream America, but out of control as well. Many people believe that there are no standards that television will not violate, no lines television will not cross. Broadcasters may see the V-chip as a threat to their independence and financial well-being, but many average citizens see television as a threat to their children and their country. In the V-chip, they perceive a modicum of protection for their families.

          Why are people afraid of television? Much of the news media has focused on the violence, but that is only part of the problem. Millions of Americans are fed up with explicit sex scenes and crude language during prime time and with the pornographic content of those abysmal talk shows and soap operas during the day. They feel television is not only offensive, but on the offensive, assaulting the values they and most of their neighbors share.

          People are angry because they cannot sit down to watch TV with their children without fearing they will be embarrassed or demeaned. And they are angry because they feel our culture has been hijacked and replaced with something alien to their lives, something that openly rejects rather than reflects the values they try to instill in their families. In the world they see on TV, sex is a recreational pastime, indecency is a cause for laughter, and humans are killed as casually and senselessly as bugs. It is a coarse caricature of the America they love.

          David Levy, the executive producer of the Caucus for Producers, Writers, and Directors, aptly describes this situation as "television without representation." Some critics tell me that, in the zealous pursuit of the prized demographic cohort of young adults, the industry has shut out the rest of the public, and let the tastes of a few dictate the menu for all.

          Average viewers may not be aware of market dynamics at work, but they certainly understand the consequences. They have a growing sense that the anything-goes mentality permeating our electronic culture contributes to the moral crisis facing America. I believe this notion -- that the contemporary entertainment culture is affecting our values in a deeply troubling way -- is at the core of the brewing cultural rebellion.

          This is a very anxious time in our history. The bonds of trust that people once took for granted in their neighborhoods and schools and workplaces are withering, and the social order that once anchored their lives and their communities is breaking apart. Stability is giving way to an increasingly chaotic and threatening world in which a snowball fight can quickly escalate into fatal shotgun blasts, as happened recently on a major thoroughfare in the city of Hartford.

          The source of this social breakdown, many people believe, is the collapse of fundamental values. A critical connection exists between the erosion of morals and the explosion of social pathologies around us -- brutal violence committed more and more often by strangers, the disintegration of the family, the epidemic of illegitimacy. In much the same way, many of us see a critical link between this erosion of values and the plummeting standards of decency on television and in our culture.

          Some in the entertainment industry continue to argue that they are merely holding up a mirror to our culture, and scoff at the notion that the entertainment culture is responsible for all our social ills. The time has come to take a torch to this straw man. Neither President Clinton nor William Bennett nor I nor anyone I know is suggesting that any individual entertainment product, or even the whole of the entertainment industry, has single-handedly caused the rise in juvenile violence or illegitimacy. We are saying that the entertainment culture is immensely powerful, more powerful than any lawmaker in Washington, and that this power is wielded in ways that make our country's problems worse, not better.

          Consider a few facts. There are 95 million households in America with televisions, which means more households own TV sets than telephones. Sixty-five percent of those homes have at least two TVs, which on average are turned on seven hours a day. The typical child watches 25 hours of television every week. That is more time than most of them spend attending religious services, talking to their parents, reading books, or even listening to their teachers. Many kids spend more time watching television than any other activity except sleeping.

          No one can seriously deny the potential influence that kind of constant exposure carries with it. And because of that power, those responsible for television programming do not just mirror, but also mold, attitudes and behaviors. Whether they want the responsibility or not, they are influencing our values. And whenever they air degrading programs, they contribute to -- not cause, but contribute to -- the moral and social breakdown we are suffering.

          So many studies have documented the threat posed by steady exposure to violence on television that the point should not even be subject to debate. But to add yet another voice to the mix, consider this passage from a stunning article Adam Walinsky wrote last year in the Atlantic Monthly, in which he warned of a coming generation of "superfelons" who when they mature will likely make the cities of today look peaceful:

          "These young people have been raised in the glare of ceaseless media violence and incitement to every depravity of act and spirit. Movies may feature scores of killings in two hours time, vying to show methods ever more horrific. . . . Major corporations make and sell records exhorting their listeners to brutalize Koreans, rob store owners, rape women, kill police. . . . These lessons are being taught to millions of children as I write and you read."

          The media's messages are not transforming these young people into killers, Walinsky says, but they are feeding into a cycle of violence that is getting harder and harder to break and that has dire repercussions for our country. Much the same could be said about the effect of sexual messages sent to our children. No single show is corrupting America's youth, or creating the epidemic of teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. But television as a whole says over and over to our children that sex is as devoid of consequences as a game of charades, and they are missing out on something great if they don't have sex right away. It is hardly surprising, then, that a recent poll of kids aged 10 to 16 found that nearly two-thirds believe TV encourages them to become sexually active too soon.

          If you still doubt the influence that television wields, just listen to America's parents. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard mothers and fathers say that they feel locked in a struggle with the powerful forces of the electronic culture to shape their children's values -- and that they're losing. They feel that television and the culture undermine their fundamental duty as a parent -- teaching right and wrong, instilling a sense of discipline -- and that their kids' lives are increasingly controlled by careless strangers a world away.

          This is why the concept of the V-chip is so appealing to parents. It offers them a silicon hard hat to protect their kids from television's falling standards. The implications of the V-chip's popularity are remarkable. The public feels so strongly that their children need to be shielded from words and images in the entertainment media that they are turning to the government for help -- not censorship, but help. Considering the low esteem with which Americans today regard Washington, this should tell us something about the public's faith and trust in the TV industry.

          The public's fear and anger is understandable when you consider the industry's thoughtless response to its concerns. For instance, after hearing a growing chorus of complaints last year about the quality of prime-time programming, capped by last summer's debate in Congress over the V-chip, the major networks reacted by unleashing what critics widely assailed as the crudest, rudest new fall season in history. All too typical were scenes like the one from Bless This House on CBS, broadcast during the old Family Hour, when a female character said she was so sex-starved that she wanted to "do it on the coffee table." To that another character responded, "Don't you ever get your period?"

          This rash of vulgarity is only the latest step down in an ongoing trend. A study done by a research team at Southern Illinois University recently found that the frequency of indecent and profane language during prime time had increased 45 percent from 1990 to 1994.

          But the most disturbing thing about this fall's "slow slide into the gutter," as the Hartford Courant's TV critic called it, was that much of it was happening in the 8 p.m. time slot when millions of children are watching. As the Media Research Center documented in a recent report, this crossover marked the death knell of the traditional Family Hour. Among other things, this study found that in 117 hours of programming reviewed over a recent four-week period, 72 curse words were used, including 29 uses of the word "ass," 13 uses of "bitch" and 10 uses of "bastard."

          If these developments are not enough to drive parents to embrace the V-chip, then consider how several network executives responded recently to criticism of the decline in prime-time standards. One top official's justification was that "sexual innuendoes are part of life." Another said, "Society has become crasser, and we move with that." And yet another said, "It is not the role of network TV to program for the children of America."

          After hearing these comments, I can't help but ask how these industry leaders would feel if I came into their home and used some of this kind of foul language in front of their children. I doubt they would stand for it. But why then do they feel it is perfectly acceptable and appropriate to use that kind of language in my home, in front of my child? That is essentially what is happening when they decide to send these shows into my living room -- they are speaking to me and my family, which includes my eight-year-old daughter.

          The same question could be asked of the major syndicators who produce and distribute the daytime "trash TV" talk shows. I recently joined William Bennett and Sam Nunn in a public campaign to focus attention on these degrading, offensive, and exploitative programs. The point we are trying to make is there are some things that are so morally repugnant that they should not be broadcast for mass consumption, least of all by the eight million children who watch these shows regularly. The examples we cite, such as the teenage girl who slept with more than a hundred men, or women who marry their rapists, were unequivocally beyond the pale.

          Yet, although we have received comprehensive public support for our efforts, not one of the major communications companies that own the shows we raised concerns about -- such as Gannett, Tribune, Sony, Time Warner, Viacom -- would publicly acknowledge that their products were problematic in any way. Nor, to our disappointment, has the leadership of the broadcasting industry stepped forward to talk about this genre's excesses.

          Those same corporate leaders tried to kill the V-chip in its legislative crib, and for a long time they seemed prepared to pursue a court challenge at all costs. But to their credit, the networks and the National Association of Broadcasters dropped their opposition following the president's appeal in his State of the Union address and agreed (albeit reluctantly) to create a comprehensive, self-enforced rating system. Regardless of how it came to pass, this was a historic breakthrough. The tools offered by the V-chip and a ratings system will go a long way toward empowering parents to keep overly violent and offensive programs out of their homes and out of reach of their children.

          But the industry must realize that these tools will not eliminate the fundamental problem that is fueling the deep-seated anger felt by so many Americans: the deterioration of the industry's programming standards. The V-chip is no panacea; the harmful messages abounding on television are still going to reach many young kids. Moreover, the V-chip is no substitute for network responsibility, for recognizing that the programming they send into our homes carries with it enormous influence. Simply put, the American public wants more from television than just good warnings on bad programming.

          There is some reason for hope. A growing chorus of voices within the industry is calling for fundamental changes in the way television does business. For instance, in a recent high-profile speech, Richard Frank, the president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, recently said, "Why do you think people such as C. Delores Tucker, William Bennett, Tipper Gore, Reed Hundt and many others are attacking music and the media? Because the reality is frightening" (emphasis added). Frank went on to urge the industry to use the enormous power at its disposal to take some risks and set higher standards. "We cannot and will not ignore the important issues facing television," he said. "We must deal with them responsibly."

          One of the most important steps the industry can take now to address the concerns we have raised, and to begin to restore public confidence in its programming, would be to adopt once again a voluntary code of conduct. I know that some in the creative community will charge that such a code is an attempt to chill their free speech, but the truth is that self-regulation is common sense, not censorship.

          The time has come to recognize that not every aberrant behavior or hostile voice has the right to be featured on television on a daily basis, especially at times when large numbers of children are watching. That means asking the industry to draw some lines which programmers cannot and will not cross, something Court TV has already done by adopting a code of ethics for its own programming.

          I hope that the industry will include in any voluntary code they develop a commitment to bring back the Family Hour and to recreate a safe haven for children during prime time. The major broadcast networks would not only be helping parents by taking this step, they would also be helping themselves. There clearly is a market for high-quality, family-friendly material, as evidenced by the fact that Nickelodeon was the top-rated cable network in the nation last year. This channel has viewers that ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox could win back.

          Lastly, we must not just focus on what is bad about television, we must also talk about what could be good and even great about television. One of the most revealing studies I've come across recently showed that at-risk children who watch Sesame Street score significantly higher on math and verbal tests than peers who do not. Just imagine what we could do for the nation's children if there were 20 variations of Sesame Street to choose from after school instead of 20 Jerry Springers. While that is not likely to happen any time soon, it's a safe bet that the president and many others will continue to push the industry to increase the amount of quality educational programming for kids.

          These are just a few suggestions. The devil here is not in the details but in the big picture -- or rather, in all the troubling pictures and words the TV industry is pumping into our homes, and in the damage that the sum of those messages inflicts upon our society. The people who run television have a choice before them: Respond to this Revolt of the Revolted, or face the Sentinels of Censorship. The last thing I want is the government setting standards, but I fear the public will soon turn again to Congress to take stronger actions if the TV industry continues on its path downward.

          We must avoid that outcome at all costs. To do so, the TV industry must see the V-chip for the powerful symbol of discontent it is, and treat it as a beginning and not an end. More and more these days television is becoming a pariah in America's living rooms, and no slice of silicon can block out that reality.

Joseph Lieberman, a Democratic U.S. senator from Connecticut, is the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council.

Talkin' Trash

         Democratic senators Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Sam Nunn of Georgia have joined Heritage Foundation fellow William J. Bennett in urging producers, broadcasters, and advertisers to scale back their support of talk-show sleaze. Policy Review offers these descriptions of actual topics discussed on daytime television talk shows.

          Jenny Jones (Warner Bros. Television). Guests have included: a woman who said she got pregnant while making a pornographic movie; a husband who had been seeing a prostitute for two years and whose wife confronted him on the show. Selected show titles: "A Mother Who Ran off with Her Daughter's FiancÇ," "Women Discuss Their Sex Lives with Their Mothers."

          Sally Jessy Raphael (Multimedia Entertainment). Guests have included: a 13-year-old girl who was urged to share her sexual experiences, beginning at age 10; a person who claimed to have slept with over 200 sexual partners; a man who appeared on stage with roses for the daughter he had sexually molested, and revealed that he had been molested when he was five. Selected show titles: "Sex Caught on Tape," "My Daughter Is Living as a Boy," "Wives of Rapists," "I'm Marrying a 14-year-old Boy."

          Jerry Springer (Multimedia Entertainment). Guests have included: a man who admitted to sleeping with his girlfriend's mother; a 16-year-old girl (wearing sunglasses to disguise her identity) who said she buried her newborn baby alive in her backyard; a 17-year-old who had married her 71-year-old foster father (with whom she first had sex when she was 14) and had borne four children by him; a husband who revealed to his wife on the show that he was having an affair, after which the mistress emerged, kissed the husband, and told the wife that she loved them both.

          Montel Williams (Paramount). Guests have included: a pregnant woman who boasted of having eight sexual partners during her first two trimesters; a 17-year-old girl who boasted of having slept with more than a hundred men; a man claiming to be an HIV-positive serial rapist of prostitutes. Selected show titles: "Married Men Who Have Relationships with the Next-Door Neighbor," "Promiscuous Teenage Girls."

          Maury Povich (Paramount). Guests have included: a young mother who had no qualms about leaving her sons in the care of her father, a convicted child molester, because the father had only molested girls.

          Geraldo (Tribune Entertainment). Guests have included: a gold-chained pimp who threatened to "leave my [expletive] ring print" on the forehead of an audience member, while scantily clad prostitutes sat next to him. Selected show titles: "Men Who Sell Themselves to Women for a Living," "Mothers Try To Save Their Daughters from Teen-age Prostitution," "Women Who Marry Their Rapist."

          Richard Bey (All American Television). Guests have included: a woman who said her 16-year-old sister had slept with 15 men; two sisters who hate each other and who mudwrestled while the show played pig noises; a man who wanted to have sex with his girlfriend's sister before he and his girlfriend got married. Selected show title: "Housewives vs. Strippers."

          Ricki Lake (Columbia Tri-star Television). Guests have included: a woman who boasted she once pulled a gun on her boyfriend's wife; a man who explained to his surprised roommate that he had revealed the roommate's homosexuality to the roommate's mother. Selected show titles: "Women Confront Exes Who Cheated and Then Warn New Girlfriends," "Now That I've Slept with Him, He Treats Me Like Dirt!"

          Rolanda (King World). Guests have included: a woman who revealed her love for her female roommate, whose response was, "Now I know why she comes in the bathroom every time I take a shower"; a woman serving as maid of honor to her best friend who alleged that she had slept with the groom a week before the wedding. Selected show titles: "I Use Sex To Get What I Want," "Get Bigger Breasts or Else."

          Sources: Compiled by Empower America from Electronic Media, Portland Oregonian, American Prospect, Media Research Center, Talk Soup, and Tuning In Trouble: Talk TV's Destructive Impact on Mental Health, by Jeanne Albronda Heaton and Nona Leigh Wilson (Jossey-Bass Publishers).