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 ever.
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 inevitable.
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?