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So, They Fixed TV ...

Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

Bill Haber, who headed the television department at Creative Artists Agency, surprised many last year by leaving the Hollywood talent agency to become an executive at the nonprofit organization Save the Children.

In retrospect, there was some prescience in that move, since the rallying cry “save the children” became the focal point in 1996 of efforts--spurred by a perceived coarsening of society and the pervasiveness of mass media--to get television to clean up its programming.

Cornered politically by Congress, the Federal Communications Commission and President Clinton as he claimed his own “family values” high ground, the TV industry agreed to two historic concessions ostensibly designed to help protect and educate children: labeling programs to provide parents with more information in deciding what their kids should watch and scheduling at least three hours a week of children’s educational programming.

Broadcasters long resisted both initiatives on 1st Amendment grounds but stood little chance in an election-year public-relations war. The president deftly demonstrated the point, using his State of the Union address in January to call industry leaders to Washington for a summit on the issue.

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Though one executive likened the summons to being “taken to the woodshed,” entertainment moguls from every major network and studio reluctantly attended, including News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, Disney’s Michael Eisner and then-studio President Michael Ovitz.

At the Feb. 29 event, Clinton demonstrated the bind in which Hollywood found itself, saying that by adopting ratings, “We’re handing the remote control back to America’s parents so that they can pass on their values and protect their children.”

Broadcasters had less altruistic incentives as well. CBS, for example, agreed to the three-hour children’s commitment while seeking FCC approval of its $5.4-billion sale to Westinghouse. Similarly, sources have said the major networks were more receptive to establishing TV ratings because of concern about the allocation of spectrum, or the public airwaves over which they broadcast, which if decided in an unfriendly manner could cost them millions of dollars.

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There are those who would argue, however, that the net effect of this push to regulate content may be more sound than fury. Doubts about the efficacy of rating television range from industry reluctance to clearly delineate levels of sex, violence and harsh language in each show to more ephemeral factors, such as changes in how Americans watch TV.

Beyond that, there’s the sheer logistics of policing more than 600,000 hours of broadcast and cable programming annually, and whether these proposals--voluntary or otherwise--can achieve their stated goals.

Network research and a study sponsored by the advocacy group Children Now show parents are watching television less with their kids, in part due to a proliferation of channels and in part to an increase in homes having more than one TV set. Those surveys paint a picture of kids viewing TV (perhaps the cable network Nickelodeon) in one room while parents watch in another.

The idea that parents can’t always be around to supervise viewing has spurred support for the V-chip, a device that would allow them to block out certain programs. Still, critics note that few TV sets will be equipped with the chip for some time, and there are questions about how many adults will have the technological savvy, much less the inclination, to use it.

Some argue that such safeguards are most likely to be used by those parents already vigilant about what their kids watch, failing to reach the children for whom the system is most needed. Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, and others have maintained that whatever is done to curb or regulate TV, it’s no substitute for parental responsibility.

V-chip proponent Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) has said that if even a small percentage of parents take advantage of the technology, ratings would decline for objectionable programming, thus reducing levels of violence.

Yet there’s uncertainty as to whether ratings will actually curb content for those who feel TV programming has gotten out of hand. Network officials say they do not expect the ratings system to tone down their shows, only to provide more information to parents in deciding what their kids watch.

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It also bears noting that another ratings system, the one administered by Nielsen Media Research, hasn’t shown the audience fleeing from racy material. Series such as “Friends,” “NYPD Blue” and “Walker, Texas Ranger"--considered some of TV’s most permissive shows in regard to sex, language and violence--remain among TV’s most popular.

In the realm of unintended consequences, there have been indications at least with the MPAA’s movie rating codes, on which the new TV system is based, that a “G” rating can be off-putting to adults without children. Since advertising is sold primarily off how many young adults tune in, ratings for wholesome family shows could thus theoretically be hurt by the system.

Conversely, ratings may actually inspire curiosity about shows that carry more restrictive labels. “It’s the ‘forbidden fruit’ syndrome,” said one network executive.

Similar challenges face producers of children’s fare. Viewing of Saturday-morning kids shows has already plummeted on broadcast television, and few educational shows have been proven ratings winners. As Mark Waxman, producer of the science-teaching series “Beakman’s World,” suggested at the height of the debate, children won’t watch curriculum-based programs. “Kids don’t want a sixth day of school.”

While the industry will try to avoid the embarrassment of stations labeling “The Flintstones” as educational, there’s also debate whether NBC’s live-action comedy “Saved by the Bell,” the basketball show “NBA Inside Stuff” or children’s game shows are truly “educational” in the way the rule was intended. PBS has already urged broadcasters only to identify shows “with real educational value” as fulfilling their children’s requirement.

Two of the major networks, in fact, while saying they will comply with the rule, have reduced their volume of children’s programming. CBS will cut its Saturday-morning kids lineup from five to three hours next fall, scheduling a two-hour news program there, as NBC currently does.

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President Clinton has said that if enough viewers respond to these initiatives, “It will change programming, hopefully for the better.” By contrast, some producers fret that imposing a ratings system will prompt networks to offer safe (translation: boring) shows, especially if there’s a price to airing programs with stiffer ratings. Producers of acclaimed shows like “NYPD Blue” and “Friends” say such projects would be hard to develop in the current political climate.

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All this leaves behind at least room for skepticism as to what has ultimately been accomplished. Can affixing ratings to TV shows, as the President suggested, really lead to higher-quality programs? That question, at least, can perhaps be answered better with a rhetorical one: Been to the movies lately?


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