Entertainment television banged into American living rooms years ago like a smart-mouthed orphan hoping to win our love. He was too fascinating to banish, so we became attached. OK, we said, you can stay - but behave yourself when it comes to morality.
But he misbehaved. As he entertained us, he started telling tales of sex and violence. At times he was downright prurient, not to mention stupid in using his influence.
Now TV is being taken to the wood shed.
By congressional demand, the television industry must come up with a rating system by 1997 or else a federal commission will. Jack Valenti, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) president who instituted the movie-rating guidelines, is creating an "implementation board" to establish rating categories for some 2,000 hours of the orphan's tales each day. (A Canadian system that rates levels of sex and violence as well as age categories is being strongly considered.)
To experience a little of what a TV ratings board might go through, 15 Monitor editors and writers watched five networks' worth of prime-time TV (8-11 p.m. EDT) on May 2, a Thursday - America's most popular TV night.
The evening was part of "sweeps" week for the TV industry, one of three annual month-long periods (February and November are the others) when audience numbers are used to set local stations' ad rates. Programmers go to great lengths to attract big audiences.
Our editors used the MPAA guidelines: G, approved for all ages; PG, parental guidance suggested; PG-13, parents strongly cautioned; R, not for viewers under 17 unless with an adult; NC-17, no one under 17. Three groups were recruited: twentysomethings, parents with young children, and parents of adult children.
The consensus: Sitcoms and dramas had a field night of sexual innuendoes, and casual sexual encounters. Violence, anger, and bickering were a close second.
There was humor at times, but not much wit or fresh insight. Nor was there much for young children, except for one PBS show and a CBS special.
Whoever rates the shows will be assessing the content of a competitive, ratings-driven medium that often treats serious contemporary problems in a trivial way. Traditional values, as well as the needs of children, are neglected. The days when a family could sit down together and watch "Little House on Prairie" or "The Waltons" are long gone.
NBC tops the ratings race
NBC was the Nielsen winner that night, with the four top-rated shows. No. 1 for the night, the week, and the year was "ER" (10-11 p.m. EDT), which reached 22.4 million homes. In it, an ensemble cast populates a Chicago emergency room.
The show got a solid R from us. One editor described it as "violence, sex, blood, sex, violence, and more sex." Another writer suggested the show's setting reflects the "relentless medicalization" of America.
"[Actor] George Klooney spends most of his time in bed" with a woman in this episode, noted a writer. Another concluded that many of the relationships were fairly "absurd," not to mention immoral: A father's girlfriend sleeps with his grown-up son. A man sleeps with his girlfriend and his soon-to-be-ex-wife on the same day. An ambulance driver injures just about everyone he sees.
NBC's "Seinfeld" was the second-highest-rated show that night, reaching 21.1 million homes. In a special one-hour episode, Elaine goes to the Jackie Onassis auction and bids on JFK's golf clubs. Subplots abound.
"Goofy and zany," is how some Monitor staffers saw it. They liked it, giving it PG and PG-13 ratings. Despite the humor of self-recognition, one noted, past shows have promoted "casual sex and a meanness that suggests 'everybody is doing it.' " Another editor said the material this night - compared with other shows - wasn't particularly offensive.
"Friends" was the fourth-highest-rated show. PG-13 is our rating, mainly for all the references to sex. "Usually I'd give the show an R rating," one editor said. This episode was tamer than most, but had "sexual innuendos and glamorized drinking among young people." This editor continued: "Parts of the show were clever and often quite funny."
Those who watched the FOX network started with "Martin," a sitcom featuring the husband of a black couple. The show is surprisingly full of black stereotypes - the man without a job, the dumb friend, allusions to sexual prowess. Worst of all, Martin continually denigrates his wife's best friend. The humor here is sour and bickering. PG, said most; PG-13 said one writer.
Commercials for violent films
Different from the other networks were the commercials on FOX. The film "Barb Wire" was heavily promoted, featuring explosions, gunshots, breasts, and unrelenting anger.
"New York Undercover" on FOX centered on a policeman infiltrating a gun-running gang. It was sprinkled with sex, killings, mean ugly thugs, and a plot that somehow overlooked the fact that the hero kills a federal agent. Several staffers gave it a PG-13 rating, but this writer gives it an R for violence. The ABC movie "Wiseguy" also earned an R rating. One writer called it a "thug-arama" and "shallow and poorly acted." The body count "hit the double digits," another added.
For G shows, several writers said "World's Funniest Home Videos" (an "America's Funniest Home Videos" spinoff) on ABC was OK. "No swearing, or sex, and the violence is of the slapstick sort," commented one.
On PBS, "Say Brother" was a winner. "Tap dancing phenoms," said a writer. "Their stories were great, the dancing amazing. It's a show kids should be watching with parents."
"Smithsonian Fantastic Journey," a documentary-style science special on CBS, earned a G rating from panelists as well. "All episodes were tastefully done for a family audience," said an editor. "Even the shark scenes were relatively mild, only showing sharks going after bait."