In Hollywood, Some Learn From Littleton
by L. Brent Bozell III
On the heels of Littleton, some in Hollywood finally -- finally! -- are acknowledging the obvious: there is a connection between entertainment media messages bombarding impressionable youngsters and their subsequent behavior.
CBS won't air (for now) its violent new series, "Falcone." Fox is scrubbing (for now) its graphically gory "reality" TV shows. Barry Diller, whose Studios USA owns "The Jerry Springer Show," has promised (again) that on-set fistfights will no longer be permitted.
Some are suggesting this is but symbolic posturing on the part of network executives, and they might be right. But I don't think so. I think the carnage in Colorado has dramatically affected them -- some of them, anyway.
A couple of weeks ago I was on the phone with Jamie Kellner, head of the WB network. The question he faced, and which had received sizeable news coverage in recent days, was: Should WB scrap the season finale of its popular "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" because the episode, as bad luck would have it, dealt with an outpouring of violence at a high school...
Kellner was in a pickle. He could argue -- convincingly, I think -- that a careful review of the controversial episode would demonstrate that a story line dealing with a fantasy 60-foot evil monster which happens ultimately to be slain inside a school is a far cry from the reality of Littleton.
What would the scrapping of the show mean to WB? Answer: Plenty. Kellner not only would be inviting the ire of millions of "Buffy" fans, he'd be jeopardizing his network's financial future: The episode was slated to run during an all-important sweeps period.
What would I have done were I in Kellner's shoes -- heading a fledgling new network scratching and clawing for any new viewer in an already-crowded and supremely competitive TV field? I give the caveat that I have not actually seen the episode, only heard its description, but I think I would have chosen to run it, and take the public relations hit.
Instead Kellner pulled it. It was no empty gesture; that decision could cost him plenty. Those (like yours truly) who are quick to condemn the excesses of the television industry should recognize this as a noble statement.
Yet there is a real irony here. Much is being said about the pernicious effects of television's violent programming on children when, in actuality, graphic violence on broadcast television is a rarity. It's on basic cable where one network after another wreaks havoc with the genre.
And it raises this question: If network executives are willing to concede the (obvious) effect of violent programming on impressionable children, why won't they admit the correlation between other forms of deviancy presented on television and behavioral effects these have on the young? Indeed, when it comes to foul language and sexual decadence, many have just the opposite attitude. Television has become a sewer of obscene messages to young people and network executives seemingly couldn't care less.
Three years ago there was a furious debate about the wretched state of affairs in prime time. Faced with the threat of government regulation, the industry acknowledged the need to do something about it and instituted the ratings system. A 1998 Parents Television Council examination of that system proved just how fraudulent it was: 65 percent of the shows containing obscenities did not carry an L for coarse language; 76 percent of the programs featuring sexual innuendo didn't receive a D for suggestive dialogue.
The networks, which undertook the responsibility to rate themselves, clearly violated the letter of the agreement, clearly broke their pact with the public. What about the spirit?
To be sure, the ratings were never designed to correct the problem of raunchy programming bombarding youngsters. And yet one remembers the hue and cry of so many network executives during the ratings debate, solemnly promising to address this growing problem. Did they?
A new study by the PTC confirms they did not. In fact, the industry did the opposite, using the ratings system as a means to make prime time television sleazier, more morally repugnant than ever before. The PTC studied broadcast programming during two weeks of sweeps in '96, before the ratings were established, followed by two sweeps weeks in '97 and two more in '98.
The results are devastating. While the levels of violence have remained relatively unchanged, the same can't be said for foul language, which rose a dramatic 30 percent. Deviant sexual content? Up 42 percent.
There can be no Littletons to shock the industry into recognizing the effects their sewage is having on the popular culture. But you don't need a Littleton. You need only visit your local mall. The meltdown is on full display.
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