Family TV Window: Barely Open

Family TV Window: Barely Open
by L. Brent Bozell III
March 5, 1998

Last year, when the television networks instituted a content-based ratings system, the forces outraged by the offensive nature of entertainment programming were stilled, if not entirely pleased.It's wakeup time. Not only is the content on television worse than ever before, but the networks also are purposely concealing this from parents.

I grew up in the heyday of television's family hour. In the mid-1960s, early evening programming, which then began at 7:30 p.m., was almost completely suitable for youngsters. Sure, there was occasional non-graphic violence, on shows like "The Wild, Wild West," but racy innuendo and certainly foul language were forbidden.

By the '80s, things had changed dramatically. Sexual morays had changed and there was a lot more sex on the air. But still this growing avalanche of smut was largely kept out of the family hour. Look at a few pre-9 o'clock entries from ten years ago: "Family Ties," "ALF," "Growing Pains," "Perfect Strangers," "The Cosby Show," "Beauty and the Beast," "227." The series in that time slot that occasionally touched on sexual themes ("Who's the Boss?"; "Kate and Allie") were the exceptions.And today? These days, the wholesome shows are clearly the exceptions at 8 and 8:30. A new study from the Parents Television Council details the dishearteningly sordid state of affairs in early prime time.

The study examined 128 family-hour episodes on 49 different series on the broadcast networks. To me, the most striking finding was that only 32 episodes - exactly 25 percent - included no objectionable content. Meanwhile, 69 - 54 percent - contained at least one sexual reference, and 45 - 35 percent - contained at least one obscenity. When a viewer is more than twice as likely to see a raunchy program as a clean one between 8 and 9 - that, to quote Ross Perot, is just sad.

The plethora of sex, cheap sex, unconsequential cheap sex, is again the salient problem. The study found, on average, more than two sexual references per hour, but by no means were the networks equal in this regard. ABC, primarily because of its Wednesday lineup of "Spin City" and "Dharma and Greg," finished atop this lascivious heap with 3.47 sexual references hourly. NBC, which a few years ago was a trailblazer in the sexualizing of the 8 p.m. time slot when it scheduled adult series such as "Friends" and "Mad About You," was second with 2.88.

Remember: This all takes place during the "family hour," not in late night. Though NBC had to settle for the silver medal in sex, it won the gold for foul language, averaging two obscenities per hour. If you don't want your children barraged with "ass," "bitch," "bastard," "sucks," and the like, there's only one solution left: turn off the Peacock network. (Overall, the webs averaged 0.91 obscenities per family hour.)

A secondary family-hour scandal is the (mis)application of the parental-guidance ratings. The original age-based system (TV-G, TV-PG, and so forth), widely flayed for its vagueness, was supposedly improved in October when the networks (save for NBC) began using content ratings as well - L to indicate coarse language, D for sexually suggestive dialogue, S for sexual situations, and V for violence.

A combination of age- and content-based ratings would do the trick for parents, the industry promised. But that assumed the networks would provide an honest appraisal of their product. Wrong assumption. Once again, the ratings system has failed, and miserably so.

The PTC found that of the episodes containing foul language, 65 percent did not carry an L , and of shows with sexual innuendo, 76 percent did not carry a D. CBS, which overall is the most family-friendly network, somehow neglected to place a D on any of its eight episodes that included sexual innuendo.

It's simple dishonesty: The networks are demanding that parents become more involved in their children's viewing habits, promising a system that will help them make the right choices, but then giving them false information on which to base those choices.

Now listen to some of the vulgar voices of the "family hour." The title character of NBC's "Suddenly Susan" admits her hunky boyfriend, an aspiring actor, doesn't have much talent, but adds, "When I picture him naked, somehow that doesn't seem quite so important." The title character of Fox's "King of the Hill" tells his lawyer, "Maybe I oughta tie that long hair on your head to the short hair on your ass and kick you down the street." On CBS's "The Nanny," the title character reaches into a man's front pocket to remove his wallet; the man murmurs, "Oooh, I'm getting lucky."

In 2008, my youngest son will be eleven. Will there be anything left for him to watch?