TV ethics - still hidden by a cloud of ratings points

Where is the conscience of television? The medium is widely pictured as a runaway, money-driven machine without a heart - pumping out lowest-common-denominator programming at the behest of the highest bidder.

''Television's moral North Star,'' as program creator Norman Lear puts it, ''is quite simply, 'How do I win Tuesday night at 8?' ''

Mr. Lear, best known as the creator of ''All in the Family,'' has long had an adversarial relationship with television-industry executives. But he's not alone in raising concerns about the ethical standards of the industry. He charges that television sacrifices its potential to teach, illuminate, and inspire to a cult of numbers, making the most basic programming and business decisions with ''very little concern for the ethics involved.''

Can the television industry ever find an ethical barometer that works as well as the one operating on Main Street USA?

This concern is voiced by those as close to the industry as advertising executive Len Matthews, president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, who worries that the morality we see on television ''is the morality of Sunset Boulevard and Times Square.''

Mr. Lear and Mr. Matthews aired their concerns at a recent conference here entitled ''TV Ethics: Who's Responsible?'' jointly sponsored by Emerson College and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The concerns, which have been building over the past several decades, include such issues as the overcommercialization of the medium, the exploitation of children, the stereotyping of minorities, the trivialization of news for the sake of rating points, the gratuitous use of sex and violence.

The fact that these questions are still with us in relatively unchanged form, critics charge, indicates just how far the industry is from the goal of establishing a mechanism for governing its own ethics - or even determining who should be responsible for those ethics.

''Who is responsible for ethics in television advertising?'' Public Citizen president Joan Claybrook asks rhetorically. Her answer: ''Corporations and agencies.''

If her question were broadened a bit to cover programming, the answer would include broadcast executives and regulators, as well. The responsibility for television ethics, they say, is spread among a complicated tangle of influences that frustrate those trying to push the medium in one direction or another.

More worrisome to many critics is the fact that no one seems to have a strong hand on the tiller.

Norman Lear refuses to assign particular blame to network executives. ''No villains they,'' he comments. Programmers, he adds, are ''trapped in a system'' that all but mandates the kind of behavior they evidence.

Nor does the buck stop at the ad agency door. ''I am personally very much concerned about trends in programming and how they affect . . . the formation of young minds, particularly in the area of sex and violence,'' Len Matthews says.

But advertisers have been criticized for making such public pronouncements, even as they eagerly gobble up the rating points. Many figures in the industry, in fact, have demonstrated genuine concern for the black eye they get from such programming.

If not to network executives or advertisers, where does one turn in searching for the conscience of television?

In decades past, consumer advocates and others have turned to the federal government, especially the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. The FTC looks after advertising issues and monopoly questions in all media, while the FCC regulates broadcasters. Of the two, the FTC has been widely considered the more activist in the past - once even attempting to impose a ban on all advertising to children.

That proposed ban brought the ire of the media and the Congress down on the agency - and, consumerists argue, eventually led to a gutting of its powerful regulatory mechanism. The results, according to at least one regulator, have not been salutary.

''Ethics imply self-regulation,'' contends FCC commissioner Henry C. Rivera. ''Professions have ethics; regulated industries do not.''

One of the few consumer advocates left in high broadcast-regulation circles, Mr. Rivera has frequently dissented from FCC moves to deregulate the industry further. He backed a rule - proposed by Peggy Charren and Action for Children's Television - that one station in each market be required to provide an hour of children's programming per day, Monday through Friday. But that issue, like others affecting consumers of television, appears to have little chance of survival at the agency. ''At the FCC, there's no hope,'' he says. ''Children's television is a dead issue at the commisssion.''

To some industry critics, there never was hope in Washington. ''Any kind of external regulation,'' observes Barbara Coffman, associate dean at California State University, Long Beach, ''is a surface treatment for the problem.'' What the industry needs, she argues, ''is not just external regulation, but internal detoxP: Z//O ains that there is today ''no birthing ground for acceptance of truth and O/os'' in the industry's inner chambers. ''No wonder all (television) can focus on is destruction.''

Are there any hopeful signs? Miss Coffman heads an organization known as the Association for Responsible Communication, which has attempted to marshal the efforts of those in the industry who wish to change this situation.

''There is an upsurge of interest in responsibility among communicators,'' she says, ''people who love the industry and are part of it . . . but who also are dying of guilt'' about the way the industry operates both within and without. So far, her organization is tiny in comparison with the giant industry it is aimed at, she concedes. But she maintains that many more people in television desperately want to see ''a restoration of human dignity'' in its products.

For now, however, ''the bottom-line reality'' of the industry, according to observers like Emerson's mass communications chairman, Frances F. Plude, is ''the desperate need to win. (People) grasping for rating points . . . want to do better; but they are trapped.''

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