Second in a series of articles on prime-time network TV. (Part 1 and Part 3)
May 1998 – Increasingly, Americans are voicing common complaints about the free-flowing filth coming from their TVs. But hand-in-hand with that revulsion is the fact that Americans are still watching the wretched offerings as if nothing can be done to change the situation.
In this second in a series of articles, we focus on those who watch the tube.
Aghast at the airwaves?
There’s no doubt that more and more people are complaining about what’s on TV. According to a poll of 1,258 adults by the Los Angeles Times, most Americans showed a sour attitude towards television: 65% of respondents said TV is worse today than it was 10 years ago; 87% said they believed the material on TV contains more sex and violence than 10 years ago; 71% said they thought the more explicit portrayal of sex and nudity on TV encourages immorality; and 70% said they believed TV violence caused aggressive behavior in those who watch it.
But that same poll seemed to reveal a paradox: even though people don’t seem to approve of what’s on TV, they’re still watching it. The Times’ survey of adults revealed that the nation was, indeed, spending considerable time glued to the tube: 98% of respondents said they had at least one television in their home, watching an average of three hours a day.
After all, some of the most popular shows on television contain some of the most graphic sex, sex talk, and profanity – shows like Seinfeld, Friends, Veronica’s Closet, and Ally McBeal. And don’t forget the longest running non-news series in history: the vulgar Married…With Children.
Are Americans really addicted to television, heaping helpings of Hollywood hash onto their TV trays while complaining about how bad the food tastes?
Leaving the network nest
A partial answer may be that, while people continue to watch television, fewer viewers are watching network television. In the late 1970s, the three major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) held prime-time viewership in a virtual headlock: the network audience was a solid 90% of all viewers. In 1997, the networks (now including Fox) could muster only a 60% prime-time share.
True, networks are losing viewers to an exploding number of other options. Viewers have been slipping away to cable, with offerings on the Cartoon Network, Family Channel and Comedy Central growing in popularity. Ratings for specialty channels like Court TV, The Food Network, History Channel, and Travel Channel have also increased. Additionally, younger,hungrier networks like WB and UPN, plus syndication and even the Internet all seem to be nibbling away at a pie upon which the networks once gorged themselves.
But Brent Bozell, head of the Media Research Center, a media watchdog group,said a major cause of the network-to-cable trend is that people are tired of trashy TV, and the networks refuse to accept that fact.
“Rather than face the music, the networks are seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction. Polling data showing public discontent with prime-time’s obnoxiousness were readily available last summer,” Bozell said. “The networks came back with a fall lineup of 39 new shows...and amazingly, they’re generally more offensive than ever.”
So why are shows like Friends and Seinfeld still attracting large audiences? Donald E. Wildmon, president of American Family Association, said, “Hard-working people are coming home, exhausted, and settling for whatever they can find on TV. There are some well-written shows, and people are holding their noses and swallowing the bitter medicine that comes with them – profanity, sex and violence. Every poll indicates that they’d prefer the quality without the filth.”
TV ratings fail to help viewers
Under pressure from Congress to do something aboutTV trash, the major TV networks (with the exception of NBC) and much of the rest of the television industry adopted an age-based television ratings system in January, 1997, adding content-based ratings last October. (For a complete, concise explanation of both ratings systems, see AFA Journal, 2/98.) Both systems were intended to provide viewers with information needed to decide what was appropriate for them and/or for their children. Some people had hoped that the new ratings would stem the tide of sewer-quality television.
But people generally seem to be ignoring the system. According to a recent Associated Press poll of 1007 adults, 70% of those surveyed – and 51% of all parents – said they pay little or no attention to the ratings system.
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, was instrumental in adapting the movie ratings used by Hollywood for use on television. To iron out the wrinkles, Valenti established a 19-member monitoring board to hear complaints from those who felt TV programs were being improperly labeled.
So far, according to USA Today, Valenti says the board has not received any complaints. “From the public standpoint, I guess you might say silence is consent,” Valenti said. “The criticism is not there.”
Maybe the board just isn’t listening to the right voices. One group that has been complaining loud and clear is the Parents Television Council (PTC), a project of the Media Research Center. PTC has continued to monitor the ratings system over the almost 18 months since it was instituted.
In its most recent study, PTC examined three weeks’ worth of network prime-time programming from October and November, during the so-called “family hour” of 8-9 p.m. (EST) on weekdays and 7-9 p.m. on Sunday. The conclusion by PTC: The ratings system “doesn’t come close to accurately informing parents whether or not a show is suitable for their children.” The group said the system “continues to fail” to accomplish its goal, and in effect, “the ratings remain meaningless.”
A statement issued by PTC said, “Sixty-five percent of programs containing obscenities did not carry an L (signifying coarse language), and 76% of shows with sexual innuendo did not carry a D (for sexually themed dialogue).”
Even the age-based ratings appeared to offer little or no help for discerning parents. PTC said, “The PG rating is meant to designate that a program is suitable for all [except] young children, but 59% of PG-rated episodes contained sexual references and 46% included obscenities.”
The blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the television networks, according to the group. “The so-called family hour continues to be generally unsuitable for families,” said the organization’s statement. “Worse, the networks are consistently applying misleading labels, or refusing to label shows, in a deliberate effort to suggest otherwise.”
Ironically, the end result of the TV ratings may be the exact opposite of its intended goal: it may actually increase the amount of objectionable material on television. That’s because the networks appear to be using the ratings as an excuse for pushing the envelope even further.
When Jan Oxenberg, the openly lesbian writer for the now- cancelled ABC show Relativity, wrote a controversial lesbian kiss scene for a January, 1997, episode, she exulted in the freedom of the ratings system.
“It’s the most romantic lesbian kiss ever broadcast. The kiss was edited from its original length, but it’s still in the episode,” she said. “That’s proof that no ratings system is going to change what we can show...I’m hoping that, as in the movies, an adult rating on a program will give us more freedom to depict adult situations.”
That feeling is shared up the network’s corporate ladder as well. CBS Television president Leslie Moonves said, “As long as we are informing people about what’s on our air, we should have a certain latitude as broadcasters to be just that.”
Needed: a viewer revolt
The ratings system seems to be doomed from an attack on two fronts: the networks seem intent on subverting the intent of the ratings, and a majority of people are ignoring the ratings altogether. So how will people ever get a sanitized television landscape?
One of the most revealing statistics from the L.A. Times poll was that many viewers still refuse to take responsibility for watching the very thing about which they complain. Almost 60% of respondents said that, even if people want to see filth, the industry should resist the temptation to give people what they want.
In the opinion of New York Times columnist Frank Rich, the responsibility for change lies with viewers: if they settle for whatever they can get, they’ll never get anything better. Rich said in a 1996 article, “If adults were serious about eliminating coarse TV, they would turn off Married…With Children and refuse to subscribe to risquè cable channels. American children will never grow up in a healthier electronic environment unless their parents grow up first."