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Decade produces dramatic increase in offensive TV content, study shows

WASHINGTON (BP)–Prime-time television has produced a dramatic increase in sexual references and foul language in the last decade, according to a new study, and a United States senator says it is time for the federal government to hold the networks accountable.

The report, which compared the first four weeks of prime-time programming in the 1989-1990 season with the first four weeks of 1999-2000, found:

— Foul language increased more than 550 percent in its frequency on a per-hour basis, and the curse words used were far more vulgar in 1999 than in 1989.

— Sexual content more than tripled during the decade.

— Homosexual references, which were rare in 1989, were 24 times as common in 1999.

— References to genitalia increased by more than 700 percent.

In a somewhat hopeful sign, violent content declined slightly during the decade.

The study shows “network television content standards in a complete freefall as we enter the 21st century,” said Brent Bozell, chairman of the Parents Television Council, the organization that conducted the analysis and announced its findings in a March 30 news conference at the U.S. Capitol. It “shows that there are precious few shows a parent can turn to if he wants to change the channel to avoid the trash that has become endemic on network TV.”

The networks have a legal obligation to serve the public’s interest in order to telecast their material, Sens. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., and Joseph Lieberman, D.-Ct., said at the news conference. The Federal Communications Commission, which issues broadcast licenses, should examine the problem, as should Congress, Brownback said. The Senate Commerce Committee is expected to hold the first of a series of hearings on the subject in late April, he said.

“There seems to be no abatement in the trend lines,” Brownback said. “It continues to grow seemingly without any sort of care or regard by those who use the public airwaves.

“I think it’s now time with studies like this for the FCC and for Congress to step up and to examine whether the public-interest test is being met,” Brownback continued. “The broadcasters seem to be acting as if there is no longer a public-interest test or the airwaves belong to them and not to the public and that they can simply put over these airwaves that do belong to the public anything” virtually they desire.

“And we need to get answers from the entertainment executives who refuse to exercise corporate responsibility and even refuse to respond to Senate requests to answer their questions in hearings. These companies are poisoning the cultural environment in which our children live,” Brownback said.

Longtime entertainer Steve Allen, the PTC’s honorary chairman, said unless those concerned about TV programming complain “very outspokenly and continually and in effective ways, things, believe it or not, and I speak as a member of the business which is befouling our cultural atmosphere at the moment, are going to get worse. Perhaps in the short term the most we can hope is to increase guilt among those who are guilty indeed and perhaps delay them” in their plans.

UPN was the leading network in offensive programming in 1999, with Fox, ABC and NBC trailing in that order. CBS and Warner Brothers were far behind the others in objectionable material per hour.

One UPN show, “WWF Smackdown,” produced more than 11 percent of all the sex, cursing and violence during the 1999 viewing period. “Smackdown” has an audience of 3 million under the age of 18, with about half of those between the ages of 2 and 11, according to PTC.

The report, titled “What a Difference a Decade Makes,” may be accessed on PTC’s Internet site, www.parentstv.org. Individuals should be advised, however, that the website contains some graphic examples of sexual content and profanity on network TV.