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The Family Hour Collapses

It was the winter of 1998. John Elway had just won his first Super Bowl. Bill Clinton had just told his millionth lie, this time about sexual relations he didn't have with that woman. And the Parents Television Council had released a content analysis of broadcast television's "family hour," the first hour of prime time television, traditionally reserved for families.

The family hour had been, for the longest time, a rich tradition, a simple show of respect to the family in whose living room the industry was a guest, presenting its wares. The public airwaves are just that, and recognizing that millions upon millions of children were in front of the television set in the early evening, Hollywood made the effort, year after year, to give families wholesome programming during this time period.

At some point some years ago the cracks started to appear here and there, "there" being, primarily, the new and most irreverent kid on the block, the Fox television network. Soon, every broadcast network was violating the sanctity of the family hour, offering more and more material that was clearly inappropriate for youngsters. The 1998 PTC study found that on average there were just under four instances every hour where children were being hit with raw language, lewd sexual innuendo, or graphic violence.

Hollywood's response was the usual: Oh, bother. Parents should do a better job of protecting their families from us.

Hollywood's answer in 1998 should have been otherwise: You ain't seen nothing yet.

The PTC's newest study on the family hour, 2000-2001, is out. In a word, what was once a safe haven for children has become a cesspool of filth.

Let's underscore a couple of things here. First, we're not talking about obscure cable programming; this is traditional broadcast television - CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, UPN and WB. Second, this isn't sophisticated subject matter with adult themes designed for mature audiences that is creeping into the family hour. Drama series like "ER" can contain gritty language or violent imagery, and sitcoms like "Frasier" can have racy sexual dialogue. But there is artistic talent working here, and the fact that these types of shows are produced with more adult audiences in mind makes them more palatable, even, some would suggest, acceptable.

No, you won't find this kind of show during the family hour. What you'll typically find - the exceptions you can count on the fingers of one hand - is series after series filled with trashy language, raw sex, and graphic ultra-violence, and all of it in storylines designed to appeal not to adults, but to young teens.

The language is potty humor for the sake of potty humor, including every imaginable obscenity for obscenity's sake. Even when the cuss word is "bleeped" out, it's usually, purposely, discernible - and meant only to heighten the impact of the cuss word. If you think language was bad two years ago, just consider that it's now up 78 percent from then. On average during today's family hour a child will hear a whopping 6.1 swear words every hour.

Violence? So much for the angst over Columbine and the impact of popular culture. Violence is up - ready? - 70 percent since 1999. And it's as graphic as can be: On "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" you don't just see vampires biting necks. No, now you watch and hear them chewing on the flesh.

Sexual content is down 17% from '99. That's the good news. The bad news is that what is shown is now no-holds-barred. On a nightly basis, across the broadcast television spectrum, children will see footage or hear dialogue focused on masturbation, homosexuality, group sex, oral sex, kinky sex - heck, any kind of sex goes. One reality series aired during the family hour just broke new ground by featuring two contestants apparently having sex in bed in front of the cameras. Virtually never is any of this "wrong"; almost never are there consequences for illicit behavior.

I suspect (and expect) that you, dear reader, are finding this distasteful, revolting, offensive. But if that's the case, think about something here. The newspaper carrying these words has standards of decency that would forbid me telling you precisely what is on in the family hour. One adult to another, there are things one just doesn't say, or do without crossing the line of acceptable public behavior.

But in today's popular culture it is perfectly acceptable for adults to say these things, or portray this filth - to children. Hollywood hides behind the mantra that it is "only reflecting reality." That is mythology. If it is a reality, it's a reality understood only by those living in zip code 90210.