Why do American television industry titans continue to churn out some of the junk that appears on our screens when consumers keep telling them they don't want it?
TV news programs warn us almost daily about drugs, crime, and the moral corrosion of society. But the entertainment divisions of the television networks keep bombarding us with what the American people clearly consider an unacceptable menu of trash. It glorifies violence, extols indiscriminate sex, and suggests that gutter language has become our lingua franca.
Only the most obtuse or most devious can still argue that this visual assault on our senses doesn't beget at least some of the social problems that beset us. The debate over a ratings system is an admission by the industry that some programs are unwholesome and that at least young children should be protected from them. Here's another question the industry should debate: Instead of making programs so damaging that they have to be kept away from young viewers, why not just stop making them?
The way life isn't
TV's "creative directors" argue that their art requires them to depict real life. To them, that means sordid. Yet, what they show on TV isn't the way life is for most people. Murder and mayhem aren't everyday staples for most citizens. When they do occur in their midst, most people deplore them, not glamorize them.
Some new surveys indicate that the TV entertainment industry is still hopelessly out of touch with what viewers want.
A study financed by the National Cable Television Association finds that the percentage of shows containing violent scenes increased from 58 percent in the 1994-95 season to 61 percent in the 1995-96 season. Dr. Dale Kunkel, one of the survey's senior researchers, deplored the fact that there was no change for the better in the way violence is depicted on television. He told The Los Angeles Times that "What we found is a picture of stability, of business as usual."
The study involved researchers from four different universities who assessed violence on 23 broadcast and cable networks. They found that violence was too often "sanitized or glamorized" on TV, and that those guilty of using it were rarely seen as suffering, or being punished, for it.
Ironically, the programs that depict violence without real consequences or punishment are most often the cartoons directed at children. "Of all channel types," the report says, "child-oriented basic cable (Cartoon Network, Disney, and Nickelodeon) contains the most high-risk portrayals for young viewers." The report worries such portrayals teach aggressive behavior.. Children under 7, it says, have difficulty telling reality from fantasy. For them,"cartoon violence must be taken seriously."
The report also is critical of the new TV ratings system, arguing that ratings designed to deter young watchers from provocative programs might have the reverse effect of luring them to them.
The same public concern over TV programming standards is threaded through another survey designed to measure the spirituality quotient of current TV shows. The national survey gave prime-time TV low spiritual ratings, with two-thirds of those polled saying TV has become less moral and religious in the past five years. Those polled cited adultery as the No. 1 sin on prime-time television
Wanted: prime-time spirituality
.Conducted by the Washington-based Peter D. Hart Research Associates, the poll found 82 percent of respondents wanting more references to moral issues on television, while 68 percent said they were eager to see more prime-time spirituality.
.An exception to what respondents considered the deplorable rule was the CBS program "Touched by an Angel." Two-thirds of those polled considered this the most spiritually rich show on TV.
The question now is: How many wake-up calls do the TV titans need?
* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.