Playing the Angles With Kids

The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but an "angle." That foxy corruption of mathematical principle was a rule-of-thumb in the old days for the editors who spiced the news pages of New York City's popular press with sensation.

Early in the century, when big money met mass commercial media, you looked for ways to angle a story to grab attention and boost circulation, even if truth was bent in the process.

The rule has been co-opted by those who run commercial television. They have extended it beyond electronic news content to all programming - for children as well as their parents.

Grab them by the guts, a corollary states, and the mind will follow. The rule is also utilized in dealing with viewer criticism and government regulations that threaten to impinge on ratings and revenues. Con everyone into believing you've developed a conscience, and then find an angle allowing you to continue doing whatever you please.

The game is afoot again. With the fall season, networks were supposed to embrace two new regulations intended to force the industry to put the health of America's young ahead of profit curves by curbing the visceral hype of sex and violence. One regulation now ostensibly requires them to carry at least three hours of programs a week that have a "significant purpose" of teaching worthwhile things to kids under 16. Citing this as the biggest feather in his bureaucratic bonnet, the outgoing chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Reed Hundt, proclaimed the dawn of a new era, when "the creative community can invent a whole new art form: the art of teaching children with television."

The second dictum is supposed to go into effect Oct. 1. It requires programs to carry ratings codes that can warn parents in advance about adulterated content that they don't want their children to watch, and can trip the automatic blocking device called a V-chip that will come with new TV sets.

The intent was to increase parental control of what kids watch, while avoiding industry complaints about government infringe- ment of its First Amendment rights - though no influential voices challenge the shaky presumption that constitutional rights for mass telecommunicators come ahead of the needs of a healthy society.

Given what the industry is doing to those two rules, it's immediately apparent that Mr. Hundt's "whole new art form" for commercial kidvid is more hole than doughnut. For one thing, it largely involves the age-old "angle" of slapping the "educational" label on what is, for the most part, standard-issue network market fare. An illustrative example is CBS's Weird Al Show.

This alludes to Al Yankovic, who will sing parodies of rap songs to kids. The New York Times recently captured Al in the confessional. He's quoted as saying he never intended his program to be educational: "And then CBS said, 'Well all of our shows are educational.' So I said, 'You know what? Now it's educational.' "

ABC-Disney has stuck a "made for teaching" label on a recycled 101 Dalmatians. NBC says it is teaching "life lessons" on "NBA Inside Stuff." There's the implicit need to sugar-coat and amuse in all of it.

The regulation about content coding appears headed for the same fate. NBC won't use the code at all. Major producers of kidvid continue to turn out made-for-aggression programming and say they won't trouble to label it "FV" - the rating for fantasy violence. This includes Saban Entertainment, which is offering for video syndication the techno-thrill kid strips X-Men and Marvel Super Heroes. The Nickelodeon Cable Network, whose programming is oriented to juveniles, will also reportedly shun the FV warning.

Its Ren & Stimpy, for example, is seen to be "comically violent" by the trade paper Electronic Media. So-called "happy violence" is a TV staple for which no coding exists. Bohbot Entertainment, creators of Dangerous Dinosaurs and Street Sharks, will avoid the FV label. The makers of Mummies Alive and Beast Wars haven't yet said what they'll do.

In dealing with both the coding and quality requirements, the industry "angle" is clear. Under the regulations, it is producers who define what is educational and what is to be rated OK for those who can't yet discriminate between fantasy and reality. It has ever been thus with commercial broadcasters. When it comes to responsibility as a quasi-public business, the industry will simply play the angles.

Margaret Loesch, who heads the Fox Network's global kidvid venture with Saban, declares: "There's no sense putting on programs to educate and inform kids if kids won't watch them."

Broadcasters see no profit in investing in nurturing and uplifting cultural taste. No other issue more forcefully confronts those who fight for less government and more free-marketry with the incongruity of their position.

TV programming is not the same as the popcorn business. It is the power to influence minds. Mass communications isn't solely a business. It's a commanding process by which the healthy society conducts its conversations, swaps its stories, shares its experiences, and imparts its values to young and old alike.

When programs that nurture a taste for high culture, social skills and growing minds are angled out of the electronic schedule, it's time for a public debate on where the marketplace ends on the TV screen and the needs of the democratic commonwealth begin.

* Jerry M. Landay is honors professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and a former ABC and CBS news correspondent.

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