Tuning in to TV's new season -- warily

Television viewers hoping for a break from sleazy prime-time soap operas and shallow children's cartoons are likely to find little to cheer about in this fall's new lineup of shows. To their credit, the commercial networks have made serious attempts recently to reduce the amount of gratuitous violence being aired, and this has led citizens groups such as the National PTA to give high marks to a small number of programs judged as excellent for family viewing and offering a positive contribution to the quality of life.

But on the basis of advance reports, such programs will remain the exception rather than the rule when the new TV season eventually does get under way. Moreover, Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television (ACT), points out that most of the very few educational programs for children being produced are coming from local broadcasters, not the networks. The big complaint of experts is that too few of the quality children's shows are aired nationally and those that are, are too short (less than two minutes each) and too far between (appearing once every two or three weeks). This hardly represents the kind of deep commitment to improving children's programming network officials say they have.

A recent survey conducted by the National Federation of Decency, a television monitoring network of clergymen and others, provides one further indication of why so many Americans are disturbed by the values and ideals depicted on TV. The survey was conducted by 500 monitors in 14 states who watched 742.5 hours of prime-time TV. It found that "non-Christian values were depicted in a favorable light nearly three times as often as traditional Christian values," which the federation defined as including love, marital fidelity, respect for God and people, clean speech, fairness, and forgiveness. The opposites were classified as non- Christian values.

the networks' response to such public outcries for higher programming standards is not encouraging. Network officials insist they are only giving people what they want. Moreover, some top programming executives say that they foresee no basic changes in the commercial fare to be offered by networks for at least 10 years. In the area of children's programming, the Federal Communications Commission may provide eventual relief. The FCC is considering a new rule to require broadcasters to set aside 7 1/2 hours a week for educational or instructional programming. Public hearings on this will probably be held this fall. Likewise, the Federal Trade Commission is weighing steps to further protect children from "deceptive" advertising.

But the rapidly burgeoning cable TV industry seems to hold out the best long-range hope of the public obtaining a wider variety of programs which, if not necessarily of improved quality, will nonetheless be better tailored to suit individual tastes and needs. Already in Columbus, Ohio, experimental two- way communication between home and station via cable TV not only is giving viewers as many as 32 channels from which to choose. The "Qube" system allows viewers to answer exam questionss via TV pushbuttons and thereby complete college courses for credit. Subscribers actively participate in town meetings without leaving their living room. A library channel provides discussions of books available for reading and then lets the viewer check one out by merely pressing a button; the book is mailed to him. In addition, one channel is devoted exclusively to children's programming.

Without proper regulation such technological advances could be misused to invade individual privacy. For instance, cable company computers have the ability to accumulate and distribute a vast amount of information on subscribers' viewing and voting preferences. This will have to be guarded against. But cable, video discs, and other innovations also hold out the promise of revolutionary changes in the TV industry in the not-so-distant future. Commercial networks geared to broad national audiences will likely face stiff competition from the "narrowcasting" or pinpointing of programs to small groups of viewers.

In the end, individuals stand to gain a much bigger say over the quality and types of programs shown in their homes. Until such systems are made more readily available to th public, however, government regulators and citizens groups needs to continue to press for higher programming standards than will be evident on most TV channels this fall.

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