Who Stands for Children?
by L. Brent Bozell III
Two of last week's major news stories dealt with young
people and attempts to protect them from putative dangers in their
environment. On July 9, most of the television industry agreed to add
content-based parental-guidance ratings to the age-based system in place since
January. The next day, R.J. Reynolds announced it would stop using the
cool-guy cartoon figure Joe Camel in cigarette advertisements.
Are these developments good for youngsters.... For
parents... For anybody... Let's examine them.
Ratings. When the age-based
system was unveiled late last year, many predicted it wouldn't work because it
couldn't work. And it didn't work: TV-G, TV-PG, and the other ratings did
nothing to explain program content. As a result, several members of Congress
threatened legislation to force the industry to go the content route, and the
industry compromised, adding the letters L (strong language), S (sexual
content), V (violence), and D (suggestive dialogue).
But the closer you look, the less significant this reform
turns out to be. First, age-based ratings, which are hopelessly confusing (one
study found 61 percent of shows were rated TV-PG, regardless of content),
remain. Why? Second, the new system will not indicate the frequency or degree
of the content in question. Whether a program contains one incidence or many
of a certain type of objectionable material, or mildly objectionable versus
outrageously offensive material, it will receive the same rating.
Consider: On June 23, Fox's "Mad TV" included one
obscenity; on June 30, it contained 13. Yet both installments would get
exactly the same content rating: L, added to the age-based TV-14. True, the
revised system provides parents with a little more information, but it simply
doesn't accomplish what a serious content-based system (like HBO's) does.
Nonetheless, this minor concession provoked squawking from
some elements of the industry. NBC, expressing "concern?that the ultimate
aim of the [age-based] system's critics is to dictate programming
content," says it won't abide by the content system. Writers',
directors', and actors' guilds are opposed as well, stating that they are
"troubled by the threat that the new system poses to the creative rights
and responsibilities of our members"; reportedly they have threatened to
go to court to stop it.
And could a ratings system backfire and actually make the
situation worse by allowing more offensive material, protected by a warning
label... Look at the numbers. The Parents Television Council has twice
scrutinized program content in prime time's so-called family hour (8 to 9 p.m.
Eastern and Pacific). In the fall of 1995, more than a year before any ratings
took effect, the PTC found 0.62 obscenities per hour. In the winter of
'96-'97, after the age-based guidelines were imposed, curse words per
hour were up to 0.88. Those statistics make it hard to take the Writers
Guild's Brad Radnitz seriously when he warns content ratings may have a
"chilling effect" on freedom of speech.
In fact, under Hollywood's working definition of free speech
- the ability to pack shows with foul language and raunchy humor - it's
thriving on prime time. This fall, the "family hour," with such
frisky fare as "Spin City" joining sexy standbys like
"Friends" and "The Nanny," will be more libidinous than
Joe Camel. Meanwhile, the
federal government's jihad against tobacco, a legal product which provides a
livelihood for tens of thousands, continues. Given the punishment the industry
has absorbed in the last few years - including the restrictions on advertising
contained in the recent $368 billion settlement - Joe's demise may have been
Tobacco-bashers have long believed Joe Camel's message was
directly aimed at youngsters in the hope of hooking them early. And they might
be right. Still, remember that Joe received almost no television exposure. For
years, tobacco ads have been banned from the airwaves; about the only place
one can find smoking on network TV (other than in old movies) is in news
programs, where it is always presented negatively. Yet Joe is treated as if he
were Satan with a hump.
A quarter-century ago, hippies laughed themselves silly at
the hysterical overreaction to marijuana portrayed in the movie "Reefer
Madness." One could suggest that modern liberal puritans are starring in
its sequel: "Demon Tobacco." That suggestion surely would enrage an
entertainment industry that would defend its anti-tobacco policies as
responsible, as an investment in the public's well-being, particularly because
of the impact the wrong message could send to impressionable youngsters.
Why, then, can't that same industry apply that thinking to
the trashy, vulgar TV programming polluting the airwaves? Rather than engage
in an endless debate over warning labels, wouldn't it be a blast of fresh air
if the industry were to stop the offensive programming, simply because it's
the right thing to do?
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