THE rap on television used to be that it was a wasteland. The current charge is that TV is becoming a swampland. Critics point to such developments as ``tabloid'' or ``trash'' TV - ``infotainment'' programs that treat sensational topics in lurid ways (Geraldo Rivera), and talk shows whose hosts seem bent on infuriating (Morton Downey Jr.), titillating (Phil Donahue), or offending (both hosts) the studio and viewing audiences.
Whether it's to compete with such programming, or simply from a lowering of their own standards of taste and what they perceive to be the public's interests, network executives are also allowing more and more offensive material into the sitcoms and dramatic shows they air, including on prime time.
Various reasons are given for this descent into bad taste. One is that, for budget reasons, the networks have cut back their own standards (i.e., censoring) departments. Another reason is that, in the aftermath of last summer's writers strike, the networks are scrambling to recapture audiences put off by reruns. And some observers believe that deregulation of the airwaves has furthered the slide to lowest-common-denominator programming.
Whatever the reasons, some viewers, like the star of the movie ``Network,'' are fed up and aren't going to take it anymore. Their ire is aimed at both the networks and, more effectively, corporate advertisers. As a candidate for heroine of the year, we nominate Terry Rakolta. She's a Michigan homemaker and mother who, unaffiliated with any organized protest group, shamed several major sponsors into pulling their support of the Fox Broadcasting series ``Married ... With Children,'' which traffics in sexual innuendo.
Such protests don't violate the First Amendment, as some media defenders imply. The Constitution protects the media from government intrusion, not public indignation.
Television, advertising, and corporate execs who live by the market must be prepared to perish by the market.
Messrs. Downey, Rivera, Donahue, and other purveyors of trash TV say their detractors are ``elitists'' and that they are just ``democratizing'' the medium.
Well, to use their term (which we don't buy), count us with the ``elitists.'' Of course, the protesters aren't truly elitists at all. They are simply typical men and women (``I'm not a prude,'' Mrs. Rakolta said), many of them parents, who wish to protect their families and communities from media pollution and who recognize that the empathy, tolerance, and goodwill that make democracy possible are not enhanced by epithets, shouting, sensationalism, and appeals to base emotions.
TV today is neither a wasteland nor a swampland. It offers hours of serious, amusing, and enriching programming. But it also includes some growing toxic dumps whose poisons, in the absence of public alertness, threaten to seep into the cultural ground water.