Taming TV: Has Television Gotten Worse

Taming TV: While Parents Worry About Other Media, Has Television Gotten Worse?

While media decency advocates and high-tech gadgets aim to help parents control what shows their kids see, taking the time to watch TV with your kids - and talking together about the content - is still the best antidote to concerns about inappropriate content.

This article is part 1 of 4 in a series on
Kids & TV

By Gregory Keer

The Internet is full of just-a-click-away sexual imagery. Video games offer countless depictions of violence. Music rife with profanity reaches kids' ears via iPods and cell phones. So it's easy to see how television (so old school!) might have taken a backseat among parents' concerns.

But that backseat is getting warmer.

Influenced by action groups trying to clean up the airwaves, In June 2006, Congress approved a tenfold increase in fines - from $32,500 to $325,000 - on broadcast TV and radio stations that violate decency standards. President Bush quickly signed the bill into law, putting more teeth into Federal Communications Commission rules that:

  • prohibit the broadcast of obscene material at any time and

  • limit the broadcast of "indecent" (sexually explicit, exceedingly violent or profane) material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

But the law does not extend to cable TV, which hosts many shows popular among kids and adults alike. And whether it's broadcast or on cable, some media observers charge that TV programming aimed at families has gotten worse - it's too violent, too sexual and full of attitude, they say.

What's a parent to do?

Most would rather not ban TV altogether, especially while also having to police the computer and the cell phone. Yet, keeping track of everything our kids are watching seems overwhelming.

Cindy Honegger voices the concerns of many moms when she says how frustrating it is to turn on the TV and see what's being thrown at her two young daughters. "They're being introduced to too much advanced language," she says. "They are being taught to act 10 when they're 5. They will reach these ages soon enough. I don't know why there is such a rush."

"The sexual content on TV really bothers me," adds Rebecca Alfano, a mother of three, ages 12, 6 and 3. "There are so few TV shows that aren't shoving boys and relationships, and makeup and body image stuff, down my girls' throats. Too many parents push the envelope too early, letting their kids watch mature shows, when they'd be perfectly happy with more kid-appropriate ones. It's a Pandora's box; you can't go backward once you've started it."

Prime Time No Longer Family Time?

A mere glance at some of the TV shows popular among teens and tweens today reveals what many parents consider to be inappropriate content for these ages.

ABC's Desperate Housewives, for example, was rated the most popular broadcast network show among 9- to 12-year-olds, according to 2005 Nielsen statistics. But the show's story lines have involved a woman removing her own fingers to frame another character for murder, a teenager taking his mother's lover to bed and a woman burning down her neighbor's house after learning the neighbor had been intimate with the woman's fiancé.

Fox's The O.C., which Nielsen ranks as very popular with 12- to 17-year-olds, often features sexually suggestive stories.

Other programs that rank highly with teens are saturated with violent stories and imagery. CBS's CSI and its spin-offs routinely feature graphic murders and gory details of the killings. Meanwhile, on cable TV, teens and even tweens tune in to popular fare such as reruns of HBO's The Sopranos and FX's The Shield, both well-regarded for their sophisticated storytelling but steeped in depictions of violence unsuitable for young viewers.

"Blood spattering, people being burned up, can have a strong effect" on young viewers, says media expert Alvin Poussaint, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Besides the unsettling imagery and messages, he says, "these shows don't show you enough of the consequences for the characters' violent actions."

The sheer repetition and pervasiveness is worrisome, too, Poussaint adds. "Kids get this message over and over again" - from the shows themselves, as well as from ads and clips from violent movies.

Children's TV on the Hot Seat

Beyond prime-time programming, some media observers are concerned by what they see as increasingly inappropriate content in children's programming, too. Among those sounding an alarm is the Parents Television Council (PTC). In March 2006, the conservative watchdog group released a study called "Wolves in Sheep's Clothing: A Content Analysis of Children's Television." Excluding children's educational programming, which many critics laud for its improved content and reach, the PTC research focused on shows geared to 5- to 10-year-olds on broadcast and nonpremium cable TV channels.

"For years, I'd been hearing complaints from parents that programming aimed at little children was getting more problematic," PTC founder and President L. Brent Bozell says of the impetus for the study. After viewing 443.5 hours of children's entertainment, researchers found 3,488 incidents of violence - the equivalent of 7.86 violent incidents per hour.

Among the other findings were:

  • 858 incidents of "verbal aggression,"

  • 662 examples of "disruptive, disrespectful or otherwise problematic attitudes and behaviors,"

  • 275 instances of "sexual content" and

  • 250 illustrations of "offensive language."

"Even when we took out cartoon violence, the new research still showed huge numbers of violent acts and incidences," says Melissa Caldwell, senior director of programs for the PTC. Discounting anvils dropping on Wile E. Coyote's head and things of that nature, there were 6.30 violent incidents per hour - 1.59 more than on prime-time entertainment shows.

"This is a wake-up call for the public," Bozell says. "These TV shows are not the innocent programming parents grew up with. They're far more dark, with more adult messages." Parents who already screen prime-time TV programs "have to be equally vigilant with younger children's shows," he adds.

Is It Really That Bad?

Not everyone interested in good TV for kids buys into the PTC's bleak depiction, however. David Kleeman, president of the American Center for Children and Media, a nonprofit organization that works with network producers and distributors to promote high-quality television for kids, admits that violent media can adversely affect children. But, he contends, the PTC study "uses an old style of research in which you make up your own rules" with regard to how the statistics are calculated. "By not including public television shows in the research, the number of violent incidents are inflated," he says.

Kleeman also points to the need for context when logging violent incidents in children's programs. "If the study counts a particular example of being rude to adults or teachers, it would also be helpful to know if that example is seen as funny or rude in the story," he notes.

For example, Kleeman says, the PTC study labels as offensive an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants in which SpongeBob uses a naughty word that is bleeped out each time he seems to use it. Kleeman argues that the curse word is never said, and it's not even in the animated show's script.

"The report puts words in the character's mouth," Kleeman says. "And it does not tell us that SpongeBob learned [in the story] that swearing offends people. So much of what the makers of television try to do is provide social learning, which this episode does, though it's not clear without the context that the study does not provide."

Many people who make and distribute children's programs - a large percentage of whom are parents themselves - take pains to produce material that is appropriate for kids. Rick Gitelson is a father of two and an award-winning writer and producer whose credits include Lazy Town, and Rugrats. Gitelson uses his own parenting experience, and that of his staff, to create content that fits a child's age level. In addition, he says, the network's Standards and Practices department is "constantly on the prowl for inappropriate material."

When it comes to violent content, Gitelson says his programs aim to present it in context. On Lazy Town, writers had to present alternatives to violence in a story featuring conflicts between good and evil. "It was inherent in writing the stories that we would demonstrate better solutions to the conflict than being physical, such as talking it out," he says.

With these efforts in mind, Kleeman questions the claims that children's TV producers and distributors are increasingly relying on inappropriate themes. "As a percentage, the amount of inappropriate behavior on TV may not be greater than before," he says. "It's just that there is so much more programming, more options."

An "Uphill Battle" for Parents

It's this issue of so much more programming to police that has many parents feeling helpless.

"We guard our kids tremendously," says Cindy Honegger. "We know they are constantly bombarded and picking up a lot from TV, and from their friends who watch a variety of inappropriate programming." Honegger lives in "a conservative small town, but the same influences are there," she says, because "kids have a massive range of options on cable TV."

"Parents are worried about many of the messages kids get from TV," says Jean Johnson, executive vice president of the nonprofit research group Public Agenda, which has surveyed parents on many topics, including TV content. "Many told us that they feel better able to cope when their children are little, and they can confine their viewing to public TV and some well-chosen videos.

"As the kids get older," Johnson continues, "parents see themselves fighting an uphill battle against TV and movies, music, video games, etc. - a popular culture that seems to glamorize violence, casual sex, foul language, exhibitionism, and basic crassness and incivility. On the other hand, they think that 'outlawing TV' in their house is just not workable. There are some good things on TV, they say. And, if the kids don't see it in their own home, they'll soon be exposed to it elsewhere."

Tools for Parents

One thing that media experts, TV producers and parents agree on is the need for more information to help guide viewers.

While media watchdogs, such as the PTC, work to make the TV industry more accountable and raise parents' awareness of content, technology is helping parents take back some control over what their kids watch:

  • TV ratings - Parental guidance ratings now appear on screen at the start of many shows (see "How to Use the TV Ratings").

  • The V-Chip - Required in all TVs made since January 2000, this device enables parents to block out programs they deem inappropriate for their kids.

Yet Harvard psychiatrist Poussaint doesn't put much faith in these first two options: "Video ratings are not working well because few parents follow them. And with the V-Chip, hardly any parent has even heard of it." In fact, he says, a recent study found that only 7 percent of Americans actually use the V-Chip. Poussaint would like to see more efforts to raise public awareness about the controls and how to use them.

  • Digital Video Recorders - Most recently, parents report using technology such as TiVo to filter their kids' TV viewing. They can record only the shows they find appropriate and then direct their kids to watch those programs.

TiVo's KidZone features reviews of children's programs provided by the PTC, the Parents' Choice Foundation and Common Sense Media. Parents can use their TiVo devices or the TiVo Web site to get recommendations of shows for kids of various ages.

"This gives parents informed choices about what their kids can watch," says Parents' Choice Foundation President Claire Green. "Even better, it allows them to pause a program to discuss the content."

But beyond TiVo and the V-Chip, the TV industry and quality media advocates alike put the ultimate responsibility of guiding kids' TV viewing on parents' shoulders.

"As much as I resent the content on TV, I don't think it's the network's responsibility to police it for us," says mom Rebecca Alfano. "I have to decide what's right for my kids, based on their level of maturity and my own personal value system. If I don't like what's on TV, I can turn it off."

That's a point that media observers, TV producers and child-development experts continue to make as well. In a world exploding with information and entertainment options, parents have to make their voice heard clearly, consistently and with the people who matter the most in this issue: their kids.

Gregory Keer is a writer, teacher and father of three boys. Read his Family Man column on Parenthood.