OVER the years, television has earned its share of unflattering nicknames: one-eyed monster, boob tube, electronic baby sitter, mindless entertainment.
But whatever the label, TV plays a role that experts and even some industry executives now consider indisputable: For better or worse, it is a powerful educator and major socializer of children. Newton Minow, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, goes so far as to call it ``the most important influence in America, particularly with children.''
Mr. Minow was one of more than 100 television industry leaders and child advocates who gathered at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., last weekend for a national conference on the role the entertainment media play in shaping children's values. Sponsored by Children Now, a California advocacy group, the meeting came on the heels of two new studies released by the organization.
In one poll, young people report that entertainment programs sometimes encourage early sexuality and disrespect for parents. TV shows, they add, can also make them think people are dishonest and selfish, caring more about money than about individuals.
Yet even when producers want to include more values and morals in their shows, they face a challenge: how to write scripts that avoid preaching. ``You can't turn it into a didactic medium,'' warns George Vradenberg, executive vice president of Fox Inc.
Justin Vandenberg, a 17-year-old from Oakland, Calif., agrees. ``If you get preachy, you end up having a show that kids don't watch,'' he says.
Then there is the inevitable question of the bottom line: How do you reconcile children's needs for programs that promote strong values with networks' needs for ratings that draw top advertising dollars?
It is a question not easily answered. But Winnie Holzman, creator of ``My So-Called Life,'' believes executives must reexamine their priorities. Although her series about an adolescent girl drew approving young audiences, ABC recently canceled it because ratings weren't high enough.
``There has to be something besides popularity,'' she says. ``Eventually somebody has to say, `Isn't there something else?' If being popular is all that is going on, we're all in trouble.''
As one measure of hopeful new ways in which the industry is taking children's needs to heart, ABC plans to convene a children's advisory panel. Already the network uses a ``family viewing'' logo to identify programs for young audiences.
No one is blaming television for all the ills of society. Poverty, underfunded schools, the fragmenting of the family play fundamental roles in shaping a nation's culture and values. Television mirrors that culture. But as Richard Frank, chairman of Walt Disney Television, warns, ``When television underachieves, it can contribute to the underachievement of a whole generation.''
Anyone inclined to think of television as ``just entertainment'' should consider a few sobering statistics: Prime-time programs alone fill 1,144 hours a year. Placed end to end, those hours add up to more than 47 full days. That's the equivalent of 143 eight-hour work days, or 28 40-hour work weeks. And that doesn't even include the time children spend viewing after school and on Saturday morning.
If children were given their druthers on the content of all those hours, some might well say, ``Less violence, please, and more emphasis on young characters making real-life choices.''
``Tell me a story'' is one of the most ancient and universal of requests. Now that the stories being told have grown from an intimate circle around a tribal campfire to a faceless global audience, mass-media storytellers face a profound moral obligation to use their power well.
Perhaps the best advice comes from Minow: ``If people in the business would get up in the morning and ask, `What can I do to help?' it would make all the difference.''