The ''television elite.'' They produce the programs, write the scripts, and select the shows that millions of Americans watch on prime time. But who are they? What are their goals? What are their standards?
A new study has turned up answers that could renew the debate over American TV and its portrayal of political issues, sex, business, and violence. Over 100 of TV's top people were surveyed - the cream of its creative community.
A member of TV's elite, the survey found, is usually white, male, and very well paid (over $200,000 a year). In addition, most members of the elite:
* Seldom, if ever, attend religious services.
* Consider themselves politically liberal and regularly vote Democratic.
* Grew up in large cities.
* Favor a woman's right to an abortion.
* See nothing wrong with homosexuality.
* Don't think there is too much sex on TV.
* Think the legal system favors the wealthy.
* Think the government should redistribute income.
The survey, conducted by Linda S. Lichter, S. Robert Lichter, and Stanley Rothman, appears in the latest issue of Public Opinion magazine, a publication of the American Enterprise Institute. Its findings, the authors say, show that the television elite clearly reject conservatives' criticism of TV entertainment.
Among those interviewed were 15 presidents of independent production companies, 10 network officials responsible for program development and selection, 18 executive producers, and 43 other producers, including 26 who are also writers.
Officials at CBS, NBC, and ABC declined comment on the survey, at least until they could give it closer study. One official did say privately, however, that the report made the TV entertainment community look considerably more liberal than it appeared to him from the inside.
Those surveyed say that TV should have a major role in social reform in the United States. As the authors of the survey note:
''According to television's creators, they are not in it just for the money. They also seek to move their audience toward their own vision of the good society.''
What is that vision? The TV elite feel that the media, business, and government currently have the greatest influence in society. But that structure is causing alienation. When asked how they would prefer that society be structured, TV's elite ranked 10 major power groups this way: 1. Consumer groups. 2. Intellectuals. 3. Blacks. 4. Feminists. 5. Business. 6. News media. 7. Unions. 8. Government agencies. 9. Religion. 10. Military.
Looking at this list, the survey's authors conclude: ''It would be hard to imagine a more thorough indictment of the (present American) social order.''
Why do TV's leaders hold these views? The authors looked into their backgrounds for clues.
Few of these leaders hail from Middle America. Instead, most are from large cities in California or the Boston-Washington corridor.
They come from diverse economic backgrounds, but most (9 out of 10) managed to get to college. Today, 63 percent of them earn over $200,000 a year, and only 4 percent make less than $75,000. One in four has a family income more than $ 500,000 per year.
Most had a religious upbringing, but they have, in large part, moved toward a secular outlook. The majority (59 percent) were raised in the Jewish faith. About 25 percent were brought up as Protestants, 12 percent as Roman Catholics. Today 93 percent seldom or never attend religious services.
This drift away from religion may explain why many in the group disagree with the Seventh Commandment. By a narrow 51-to-49 majority, they say that adultery is not wrong. On the other hand, by a 59-to-41 margin, they do agree with critics that there is too much violence on TV.
In politics, they are very liberal. Even in the Nixon landslide of 1972, the television elite was voting by an 82-to-15 margin for George McGovern for president. They also backed Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon (80 to 17), Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford (72 to 25).
First and foremost, they want America to be a ''humane'' society. They strongly back social (as opposed to economic) liberalism. They give little weight to national defense, economic growth, or the problems of crime.