IT'S 4 in the afternoon. You're at work, your children are home from school. They turn on the television, skip past ''Gilligan's Island'' reruns, and switch to ''Ricki Lake,'' a popular daytime talk show. Today's theme: men and boys who beat their wives and girlfriends. Several minutes into the program, members of the audience are shouting at the guests. The guests are shouting back. Another day on the talk-show circuit.
Former Education Secretary William Bennett, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, and others want to change that. They say what began as a constructive forum for issues and ideas has degenerated into a sleazy and irresponsible battle for ratings. They believe that talk shows are morally obligated to take some responsibility for what they're doing.
They're right. Mr. Bennett, author of the best-selling ''The Book of Virtues,'' and the others are not calling for government action, though Bennett has talked about the ''V chip,'' technology that would enable parents to pick and choose the shows their children watch. What the group wants - appropriately - is ''better citizenship'' by the people who own and produce daytime talk shows and by those who choose to watch.
That won't be easy: The ratings for many of these programs are sky high. But more and more viewers are becoming fed up with shows that, rather than offer solutions to problems, simply exploit misery. The final straw for many people was an incident earlier this year on ''Jenny Jones.'' A homosexual guest expressed interest in a heterosexual audience member. Three days later, the heterosexual was charged with killing the gay man.
Producers say they have the right to produce these shows if people are watching - and that's true. But just as they respond to ratings, producers and hosts will respond to public pressure.
The ultimate censor, as one talk-show host said, is changing the channel. Viewers could write these shows, explain why they won't watch, and offer suggestions for future programming. The V-chip, too, would give parents another tool to help shield their children from shows they feel are inappropriate.
Last weekend, TV talk-show hosts, producers, and industry executives met in New York with members of the bipartisan coalition of politicians urging change. Unfortunately, the turnout on the entertainment side was small. Yet those who did come admitted that they could do more.
One host, Charles Perez, said his show and others too often ''get close to crossing the line.'' He promised to do more ''issue'' shows and fewer sensational ones. At the very least, he said, he's more conscious that there's a problem. It's a start.
People are getting fed up with shows that, rather than offer solutions, exploit misery.