Last month, President Clinton announced a "breakthrough" after television and production executives pledged to create a ratings system for entertainment programs. They promised to resolve tricky questions about how the system will work within a nine-month gestation period. But before and after this baby's delivery, programmers should also address a more basic problem--the mind-stultifying stuff that makes up the bulk of TV programming.
For example, the preponderance of senseless violence on TV is a problem, no question about it. But what's been generally ignored by those of us who have reported on this issue is that senseless violence compatibly rounds out a TV schedule crowded with gobs of senseless sitcoms, senseless reality programs, senseless talk shows and senseless dramas.
Take news. Is it any less moronic to watch a TV reporter doing a live stand-up for "Rainwatch '96" from the scene of someplace where it is expected to rain than it is to see injury without pain?
The boundaries of sense and sensibility on television are being constantly pushed in all genres--the news is sillier, the talk shows raunchier, the soaps sexier, and the violence more ubiquitous and sicker.
"No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public," wrote H. L. Mencken. It's a credo that many TV executives set and count stock by, outdoing each other to provide fare that is by turns "dumb and dumber," to borrow a phrase.
The frequently made defense that we're only giving the public what it wants is cynical. It's not an argument that should absolve programmers of responsibility--and that's what it all boils down to--responsibility, not just in programs that contain violence, but in everything they expect the American public to watch.
As for TV violence, a recent study done by UC Santa Barbara and other universities and funded by the National Cable Television Assn. moved beyond the traditional body count analyses for a contextual examination. It found that in 73% of the violent programs surveyed, no consequences were shown. Beyond the obvious suggestion to show less mayhem, the study's authors recommended that when TV does show violence it should also depict pain and punishment--what they referred to as "pro-social violence."
The study was funded by the cable TV industry in a public relations effort to ward off a battle with congressional critics and to mollify those who said the industry was incapable of self-policing.
But the gambit could backfire. The study gives industry critics ample ammunition and tosses an implicit gantlet at the feet of its generous sponsors: Now what?
Premium cable outlets that show the largest number of violent programs by airing popular movies are unlikely to reject box-office hits. And don't expect network executives to substitute their parade of carnage for formulaic morality plays.
Labeling programs for their violent and adult content will allow industry representatives and government critics to claim headway on the issue.
The networks are eager to be seen as doing good. But no one should confuse the adoption of a ratings system with altruism. One little-reported, yet self-evident finding of the recent TV violence study is that movies with R-ratings and programs with parental admonitions were more likely than not to attract young viewers.
V-chips will give some comfort to those who see virtue in TV as a baby-sitter. But this too is a refuge from the overriding need for responsibility. What's called for is intelligence, integrity and respect for the viewing audience in all programming.
As Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) said recently: "If you put a rating on garbage, it doesn't make it quality television. It's still garbage."
Those of us who use the box should also do so more responsibly. V-chips, ratings, presidential proclamations and academic studies all have limited utility compared to the authority of the channel selector, not to mention the ultimate fail-safe guarantee against the pernicious influence of TV--the off switch.