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Disney’s Evolving Content Zones

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The official-looking document that turned up in my mail would have seemed like an April Fools’ prank were it not for the ABC Cable Networks Group/Disney Channel letterhead.

“Nudity in zone 1 is not allowed,” it read at one point. “Nudity in zone 2 is not allowed. Nudity in a nonsexual context such as a baby’s bottom in ‘Three Men and a Baby’ or the research scientist’s rear end in ‘Never Cry Wolf’ may be acceptable in zones 3 and 4. Full frontal nudity is never allowed.”

I spent a long time looking at this--trying to figure out where my zone 1 is, and thinking that my zone 2 has probably seen better days--before realizing “zone” actually referred to specific times of day and determining that the several pages detailing the Disney Channel’s programming standards were legitimate. Indeed, based on this season’s new sitcoms, it’s clear only a TV executive who isn’t trying could be this funny.

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Critics and watchdog groups assume that television networks will put on anything so long as they think it will attract an audience, with little regard to the damage done to impressionable youngsters and society at large.

Yet while it’s undeniable that the major networks’ programming standards have relaxed over the years, the parameters set forth by the Disney Channel (and repeated to varying degrees elsewhere) indicate a good deal of thought goes into deciding what is appropriate. In fact, people with serious-sounding titles and backgrounds in education or the social sciences spent hours drafting this material, which could have easily been lifted directly from a George Carlin comedy routine.

The Disney guidelines include everyone’s favorite media excesses, sex and violence. For instance, it’s pointed out that a movie in which the character is “driven by his need to ‘score’ or ‘nail’ a certain girl” would be problematic, thus eliminating most Hollywood summer comedies from the channel’s programming. Still, other areas of concern may not be quite so obvious. It’s worth knowing, for example, that “actual hypnosis techniques may not be demonstrated in detail.” Under the heading “Safety,” producers are told: “Seat-belts should always be worn inside a moving vehicle” and “programs should not instruct a child on how to strike a match.” Instructing children in the art of begging for Mickey Mouse plush toys, or hypnotizing them with repeated exposure to Buzz Lightyear, is doubtless another matter entirely.

As for language, the channel not only lists types of expressions that might be unacceptable but also proceeds to rattle off 19 specific words or terms that can’t be repeated here to demonstrate the point, plus a few more that are OK in one context (as Carlin put it, think of something Mary might have ridden into Bethlehem) but not another.

Rich Ross, the Disney Channel’s president of entertainment, said the guidelines are reevaluated every six months and provide a template to “help us stay consistent with our brand vision”--a fancy way of saying that the channel wants to remain relevant without alienating those seeking wholesome entertainment.

“The Disney of 2002 is not the Disney of 1952,” he said. “We review our standards constantly, because the social mores change over time and evolve over time.” The company recognizes its responsibility, he added, “to fulfill our social contract with the audience.”

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That’s where the standards and practices department comes in. It’s up to them to ensure that producers are aware, among other things, that “Girls should not be relegated to passive roles like always playing with dolls while boys are constructing a dam.”

Or this, explaining why Quentin Tarantino films, or “The Dean Martin Roasts,” don’t turn up on the Disney Channel: “The use of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes must not be glamorized, and revealing the adverse consequences of abuse is appreciated (e.g., hacking cough, the dangers of driving while intoxicated, hangover, etc.).”

More than anything, the standards highlight the wrestling match networks face in seeking to bring order to TV’s chaos, just as academics and interest groups seek to help define what spills out of the screen by measuring it, labeling it and making the whole subjective mess sound thoroughly scientific.

So we get studies like the one the Center for Media and Public Affairs recently issued, which found the volume of sex and violence in prime time has declined compared with a few years ago. Last week, meanwhile, a 17-year study was released citing a correlation between children’s TV viewing and aggressive behavior later in life.

Memo to the latter researchers: My brother and I should be locked up immediately. We watched “The Magnificent Seven” nine times in a week once during the “Million-Dollar Movie” days. Granted, neither of us is especially violent, but we can quote all of Yul Brynner’s dialogue from the film, which is suspicious enough.

Turning to the former survey, one could argue that sexual and violent content has diminished in part because prime-time sitcoms and dramas full of one or the other were supplanted by so-called “reality” shows--including concepts that risk drowning contestants (as nearly happened on an NBC project taping last week), encourage guests to betray one another or challenge them to eat bugs. Let’s have the kids watch that for 17 years and see how they turn out.

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Throughout this debate, there tends to be more flash than sober analysis, more outrage than enlightenment. A case in point: On Thursday, Fox broadcast a special about the media’s corrupting influence on children, hosted by Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, in the same slot in which the network previously ran the sex-obsessed “Temptation Island 2.” At Fox, O’Reilly’s self-proclaimed “no-spin zone” apparently leaves ample room for hypocrisy.

The simple truth, of course, is that television displays plenty of programming a vigilant parent wouldn’t want young children to watch, while creating havens such as Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel (for those with cable or satellite dishes, anyway) that endeavor to be responsible.

Moreover, whatever people may tell pollsters, the evidence suggests they are reasonably satisfied with TV (they certainly watch enough of it, with Nielsen Media Research estimating the average U.S. household has a set on more than 7 hours a day), while the truly discontented never will be.

As for making any wider sense of this tube of babble beyond that, well, just trying is enough to give you a pain in zone 2.

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Brian Lowry’s column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at brian.lowry@latimes.com.

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