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Program content grows worse despite TV ratings, study shows

WASHINGTON (BP)–The television ratings system adopted in 1997 has done nothing to reverse the tide of sex, violence and offensive language in prime time. In fact, the content of programs on broadcast networks has become much worse, according to a recently release study.
A comparison of the two-week November sweeps periods from 1996, just before the ratings system was instituted, to 1998 found the combined content of sex, violence and foul language increased by more than 30 percent, the Parents Television Council reported. Sexual content rose by more than 42 percent. Offensive language increased by more than 30 percent. Only violence, after peaking in 1997, had a slight increase from 1996 to ’98.
The PTC study covered six networks: ABC; CBS; NBC; Fox; UPN, and WB.
ABC’s content was the most offensive overall, with Fox a close second, based on a three-year average. ABC easily led all networks in sexual content. NBC outdistanced the others in foul language. CBS was first in violence but still was the least offensive network overall.
“Plainly put, television is the raunchiest it has ever been in spite of, or perhaps because of, the unintended consequences of the ratings system and those who abuse it,” PTC chairman Brent Bozell said in a news conference on Capitol Hill.
The solution is not to discontinue the ratings, because that would communicate Hollywood had surrendered on efforts to control the offensive content, Bozell said.
It is “time to challenge the industry, which spoke so loudly about responsibility during the ratings debate,” he said. “Does it, or doesn’t it, intend to voluntarily clean up its act?”
The television industry implemented an age-based ratings system in January 1997 but added content symbols in October under pressure from Congress. At the start of programs, the cable and broadcast networks, with the exception of NBC, use letters to denote content. The symbols are S for sexual depictions, V for violence, L for foul language and D for suggestive dialogue. Additionally, the system uses TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14 and TV-M, much like the motion-picture industry uses G, PG, PG-13 and R in its ratings.
Last year, the PTC released a report showing the ratings system was failing to live up to its purpose. The study of programs during the family hour on prime time showed 65 percent of shows containing foul language failed to carry an L for language and 76 percent with sexual innuendo did not receive a D for dialogue.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D.-Conn., criticized the TV industry for “growing ruder, cruder and lewder,” even after Congress adopted legislation requiring the V-chip be installed in all new televisions. The V-chip will enable parents to block programs from viewing based on the ratings system. All television models 13 inches and larger have to include the v-chip by Jan. 1, 2000, according to rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission in 1998.
While Lieberman said no one wants to practice censorship, it may be time for the FCC to consider program content before granting licenses to broadcast stations.
Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., said at the May 26 news conference a label should not be confused with a solution.
“There is a difference between taking out the trash and giving it a label,” he said. “It may be worthwhile to stick labels on trash TV, but it would be even better to just take the trash out.”
He also said the defense that “TV sleaze” has no impact is indefensible and television is “less a mirror than a mirage.”
“The world of TV character is, thank goodness, far more violent, conflicted and perverse than the life of most average Americans,” Brownback said. “For example, there are far more Amish people in the United States than there are serial murderers. There are more pastors than there are prostitutes. But you’d never know that from watching TV.”
Lieberman and Brownback serve on the PTC’s advisory board. The PTC is the Hollywood project of the Media Research Center, a Northern Virginia-based organization that analyzes media content.
Steve Allen, a longtime TV personality, is the spokesman for a PTC campaign to urge advertisers to steer away from “TV filth, vulgarity, coarse humor, pre-marital sex situations, violence, killings and all the rest into American living rooms and children’s bedrooms.”
Letters of support for the campaign can be mailed to Steve Allen, Parents Television Council, Dept. 6RAC24, 600 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 7000, Los Angeles, CA 90017.
“TV is leading children down a moral sewer,” Allen said in a full-page ad in The New York Times May 23. Allen asked, “Are you as outraged as I am at how TV is undermining the morals of children … encouraging them to have pre-marital sex … encouraging lack of respect for authority … and shaping our country down to the lowest standards of decency?”
A focus on TV advertisers can have results, Allen wrote, noting, “Recently viewers critical of just one TV program let the sponsors know of their anger, and over 35 sponsors cancelled their ads!”
Companies which advertise on TV typically have “fine people” at their helm, Allen wrote. “Many are parents and grandparents. The trouble is they have been letting their ad agencies and others decide which programs to sponsor and they are unaware of the harm they are doing.”