Girls Tell TV Programmers: 'It's Time for a Reality Check'

ON school days, Gabrielle Weber gets to watch only a half-hour of television, so she watches the comedy "Family Matters."

"It's funny and it's about real-life situations, like the time the mom went on strike and made everybody cook and clean for themselves," explains the fifth-grader at Washington's Sidwell Friends School. The female characters are intelligent, she adds, "not just dumb props."

Realistic situations and positive role models are just what girls are looking for on television.

A survey by Louis Harris and Associates, released on Sept. 19, found girls are more critical of TV than boys. Girls were more likely than boys to say there are too few shows about kids of their age and sex, and too few programs about girls having adventures and women in challenging careers.

The nationwide poll of 2,000 young people, ages 8 to 18, was commissioned by Girls Incorporated, formerly Girls Clubs of America. The organization has launched a campaign aimed at teaching girls to watch TV with a more discerning eye - and, ultimately, build demand for more female characters that demonstrate strength, intelligence, and daring.

"The TV industry has come a long way in portraying females in strong roles," says Amy Sutnick Plotch, communications director of Girls Inc. "We've come from 'Ozzie and Harriet' to 'The Cosby Show' and 'Roseanne.' But still, girls are more likely to say their world is rarely portrayed on TV."

A majority of both sexes, but more girls than boys, reported that there aren't enough programs that help young people deal with serious, real-life issues, such as sex, divorce, violence, and drugs.

The question, though, is whether serious programs would garner high enough ratings, and enough advertising dollars, to stay on the air. One series about a teenage girl, "My So-Called Life," won praise from critics - and from girls interviewed in the Harris survey - but the ABC network canceled the show after one season. "We thought it was a quality show, but the ratings weren't high," says ABC spokeswoman Janice Gretemeyer, who declined to comment on the Harris survey or the issue of programming for girls.

Regardless of what kids say they want, it seems that less high-minded programming has a better shot at surviving. In the popular "Beverly Hills 90210," boy-girl relations are played out by beautiful people with shapely figures, perfect skin, and nary a bad-hair day.

In the survey, girls were more likely than boys to imitate the hair and fashion of TV characters. Some researchers link girls' eating disorders to a desire to look like characters they see on TV.

On the flip side, the survey found that boys were more likely than girls to "talk like" or "behave like" characters they see on TV. Many researchers have linked rising violence among youth to violence on TV.

But why not just encourage girls - and boys - to watch less television? "That's a good point," Ms. Plotch says. "But the reality is kids watch an average of 21 hours of TV a week. So the reality is that TV is a major force in their lives and education."

Plotch also encourages parents to take a more active role in helping kids decide what to watch. "In order for parents to decide, they need more options," she says. She acknowledges that it's difficult for parents, especially of older children, to control what their kids are watching, particularly in this age of latch-key kids.

In an exercise that Harris found revealing, the children in the survey were asked to create their own TV shows. Researchers found a correlation between how much TV children watched and the kind of show they would produce.

The fewer hours a girl watched TV, the more likely she was to create a program about a girl who was "athletic, acts like a leader, cheerful, and sensitive to the needs of others." Their TV characters were more likely to be concerned about friends and religion, and to want to pursue a professional career when they grew up.

Girls who watched more TV were more likely to create a main female character who was rich and thin, concerned about popularity, clothes, and money, and wanted to be a model or movie star.

For some kids, male and female, the bottom line on TV is that there's just not enough out there they can relate to. Matthew Trevithick, a fourth-grader in Hingham, Mass., complains that boys on TV are portrayed as "stupid."

Take "The Simpsons." The mother, Marge, "is always going toward the right thing," but Bart, the boy, and the father, Homer, "always act stupid," Matthew says. Bart's sister, he adds, can play the sax and knows how to use the library.

One show Matthew does like, public television's "Ghostwriter," is good because it shows kids being competent. "It has children solving mysteries on their own," he says. This year, though, only reruns will be broadcast: The show lacks funding for new episodes.

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