The first hour of prime time--once set aside in the mid-1970s for family viewing--experienced a marked increase in sexual content, foul language and violence during the last year, according to the Parents Television Council, an organization lobbying to reinstate the so-called family viewing hour.
The group, an adjunct of conservative advocate L. Brent Bozell's Washington, D.C.-based Media Research Center, based its conclusions on the study of a two-week period in May, which was compared with a similar window in February 1998. Both fell during sweeps periods, when the networks attempt to boost their ratings so affiliates can charge the highest advertising rates.
The survey, released Tuesday, concluded that more than two-thirds of shows scheduled between 8 and 9 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific time zones contain sexual material parents may find objectionable, and nearly half featured some coarse language. By comparison, the study noted a relatively spare 35% of network shows contained violence, though the group maintains that marks an increase compared with 1998.
CBS programming was found to contain the most violence at 8 p.m., prompting a network spokesman to deem the survey's findings "completely misguided." The network pointed out that only one CBS program airing at 8 p.m., "JAG," featured any significant amount of violence, with such family-oriented fare as "Cosby," "Touched by an Angel" and the since-canceled "Promised Land" leading off other nights.
Perhaps foremost, the Parents Television Council expressed concern that the coming season will be even more objectionable in terms of what's acceptable at 8 p.m., with UPN scheduling a new wrestling show and five series that previously aired at 9 p.m. or later--"Spin City," "The Norm Show," "Veronica's Closet," "Just Shoot Me" and "Felicity"--all moving into an earlier time slot.
Notably, violence is not the issue in relation to those programs, which may reflect heightened sensitivity among programmers on that score in the wake of concerns voiced about the media's influence on societal violence.
Even so, the council's executive director, Mark Honig, cited a heightened reliance on "cheap sexual humor" as programs developed to air in later time slots keep being shifted into the 8 p.m. hour.
The survey determined that Fox airs the most offensive material, with at least something researchers deemed objectionable for family viewing in all of its 8 p.m. series. Fox's lineup during May featured such shows as "Melrose Place," "Cops" and the special "Surviving the Moment of Impact."
According to the survey, NBC ranked second in terms of total objectionable content between 8 and 9 p.m., followed by UPN, the WB, ABC and CBS.
William Blinn, a veteran TV writer who recently joined the council's advisory board, said he did so out of "a sense the quality of television was becoming increasingly rude, insensitive and 'in your face' for its own sake." Steve Allen is among the show-business personalities who have joined in the cause, becoming the group's honorary chairman.
The council rated about one in four prime-time programs shown at 8 p.m. on the networks appropriate for family viewing, down from one-third in the previous study. Although the "family viewing hour" was ruled unconstitutional, the Parents Television Council and some legislators have been pushing for the networks to voluntarily adopt such a code.