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Faulty Assumptions About Family TV

Brian Lowry reports on the television business for its hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times. He's by no means a mouthpiece for the networks; but nor, it appears, does he find troublesome one of their most objectionable ongoing practices: offering families an ever-diminishing supply of family television.

This trend has been the story of broadcast TV for several years, yet Lowry, like so many of those who cover television, has seemingly failed to recognize its corrosive effects. He is, however, almost alone on his beat where readership is concerned, since his is both huge (the Times' daily circulation exceeds one million) and highly influential (it includes, presumably, the heavy-hitting, L.A.-based likes of Michael Eisner, Leslie Moonves, and David Kelley).

It's worthwhile, then, to pay attention to what Lowry has to say, as in an article earlier this month about the issue.

For starters, the story's headline - "What Is 'Family' TV?" - provides us with a very early (and not-at-all- misleading) indication that Lowry will be serving up a hearty helping of the current conventional wisdom: families rarely watch TV together anymore, there's not just one definition of family programming anymore, and the like. You already know where the piece is headed.

The problems with conventional wisdom are manifold. First, it oftentimes reflects the views of the writer's circle of influence, not those of the general public. Second, sometimes it's just wrong; Christopher Columbus did not discover America. But even if conventional wisdom is arguably correct, it rarely represents the highest level of the debate.

That said, let's examine a few of Lowry's remarks.

"The 'family' label...has become so politicized that any discussion of 'family-friendly programming,' as innocuous as that sounds, invariably satisfies no one."

Not so. It is true that discussions of family programming almost certainly won't satisfy everyone, but that's quite different than what Lowry wrote. He seems to be arguing that since we're nowhere near a consensus, we should abandon the issue and accept the status quo. The problem is obvious: the status quo - the prevalence of raunch during family viewing hours - invariably satisfies almost no one (a survey shows 97 percent of parents opposed to it) - hence the vibrant debate.

"Some of the programs being viewed by families together - from 'ER' to 'South Park' - hardly fit any stereotypical notion of family entertainment. As a result, 'family-friendly programming' has become a code term truly understood only by whoever is handling the encryption."

"South Park"? "South Park" is the unbelievably filthy animated comedy shown at 10 p.m. on the Comedy Central cable network. I can think of no prime-time series less likely to be watched together by parents and their young children. Only in the 90210 zip code could this possibly be a reality. See what I mean by conventional wisdom?

"To [some television advertisers who advocate more family programming], the goal is wholesome, unobjectionable entertainment unlikely to antagonize a single potential paying customer. Quality shows such as 'ER' and 'Boston Public' - which dabble in controversial issues, from AIDS to guns to homosexuality - don't necessarily fit that mold."

This is the argument that suggests family-programming advocates would have us all return to the squeaky nothingness of "Father Knows Best." Wrong. Look at the topic matter handled on one of the most popular family series today, "Touched By an Angel." It deals with all those controversial items, but it does so with dignity, a commodity absent virtually everywhere else on prime time.

"Given that the [Parents Television Council's] raison d'etre is to lobby for establishing a 'family viewing hour' purged of vulgarity, it's hardly surprising [that its] report...presented evidence to support that crusade."

The sentences betray the sentiments. A pro-family organization wants something "purged" and is embarked on a "crusade." Maybe I'm being thin-skinned in that I founded the PTC, whose raison d'etre isn't that at all.

The PTC didn't produce a report presenting evidence to support a crusade. It presented an empirical analysis of the so-called family hour which documents the degree to which all standards of decency have collapsed in an era of moral relativism.

These days, anything goes if it can generate an audience. There is no right, there is no wrong, and certainly let's not rock the boat by suddenly ascribing a meaning to the phrase "family viewing." This is most assuredly the conventional wisdom of Hollywood, shared, unfortunately, by thoughtful and powerful men like Brian Lowry.