When it comes to their children, Americans consider TV - not Hollywood's feature films - the real bad guy in the nation's culture wars.
These findings from a new nationwide poll may be reason for pause up on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have sharply criticized Hollywood movie executives - and threatened new regulations - after discovering that movie companies marketed R-rated films to children.
Across the country, many more Americans rank TV, along with violent video games and raunchy music, as greater threats than movies to the health and morals of the nation's youth.
Nearly 4 of every 10 Americans say television has the most negative impact on children of any major entertainment media, according to The Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted Oct. 6-8.
Over 20 percent say video games have the worst influence, while 13 percent say music is the greatest menace to children.
Movies are mentioned by slightly fewer than 10 percent.
Kelvin VanArsdale, the father of two in Louisiana, says "a lot of problems in society come from what is on TV."
But Mr. Van-Arsdale, one of those surveyed in the Monitor/TIPP poll, says his greatest concerns are with rap music, which he complains is vulgar, degrading, and disrespectful of women.
The entertainment industry - particularly movies - became headline news in Congress and in the presidential race in recent weeks after the Federal Trade Commission reported that Hollywood was marketing movies that featured violence, sex, and profanity to children under the age of 17.
One studio was found to be testing R-rated movies on focus groups with children as young as 10.
Republican vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney raised the issue anew last week in the VP debate, when he chastised the Democratic ticket for criticizing the movie industry, then taking millions in campaign money the same week from Hollywood moguls.
The poll found a high level of public skepticism about using Washington to reform the entertainment industry, according to Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, a unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, who conducted the media poll for the Monitor.
"Americans know that politicians stump against Hollywood violence during the day and take money from them to run their races at night," he says. "Their confidence in the candidates to deal effectively with Hollywood is pretty low."
The Monitor/TIPP poll of 800 Americans - all likely voters - found that 49 percent favored slapping a federal ban on the marketing of R-rated movies to children. But 45 percent opposed such a ban.
One reason for this sharp division of opinion may be that most Americans say parents - not the government - bear the greatest responsibility for regulating children's entertainment.
For example, 95 percent in this survey said that parents should be "very responsible" for monitoring the movies their children attend.
In addition, 58 percent agreed that Hollywood should also be "very responsible" for helping to protect children from unacceptable movies.
Yet only 23 percent felt that government should have a significant role in deciding the movies that children see.
Kelly Meade, a mother with three children in Indianapolis, Ind., was one of those surveyed by the Monitor/TIPP poll. She says:
"I believe that more than anything, parents need to be aware of what their kids are watching. Parental control is much more important than governmental control."
Ms. Meade admits she is tempted to support some sort of controls on the entertainment industry.
"It would be nice to have more regulation on Hollywood, to make them more responsible for what they do," she says. "But there's a double-edge sword to that."
Difficulties in regulation
The difficulty in regulating movies was illustrated in the responses to questions in the Monitor/TIPP poll about four specific films.
Respondents were asked: "Would you approve or disapprove the marketing of this movie to children under the age of 17?"
When the movies involved sexual innuendo or horror, the answers were clear cut.
Asked about the gross-out comedy "There's Something About Mary," for example, some 66 percent agreed that this film with sexual humor should not be marketed to children. Public attitudes were even clearer for the three movies in the "Scream" trilogy - slasher films that have been wildly popular with the teenage set. In that case, 78 percent said that marketing those movies to children was wrong.
However, when respondents were asked about two other R-rated movies, "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List," opinion was more divided.
By a margin of 57 percent to 38 percent, this group agreed that marketing "Saving Private Ryan" to children would be OK. Yet as anyone familiar with this movie knows, it contains some of the most graphic and realistic scenes of wartime violence ever put on film.
By 66 percent to 30 percent, "Schindler's List," an intense film about the Holocaust in wartime Poland, was also deemed acceptable.
Roots of violence
William Hunt, a retired Navy veteran who has grandchildren and great-grandchildren, complains that the real problem is that "parents are not doing their jobs." But that doesn't mean he favors a larger government role.
"I don't believe in censorship," he says.
Mr. Hunt adds, however, that the movie industry is "sort of foolish in not controlling themselves.... They are going to go as far as you let 'em. They're going to go where the money is."
US senators criticizing the movie, music, and video game industries say that companies should be more responsible, particularly when marketing films and other entertainment that feature violence.
Some members of Congress blame the media for promoting an atmosphere of violence that has led to such tragedies as the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo.
Yet Americans in this survey again point to parents when it comes to responsibility for violence.
Asked "What do you think is most responsible for the violence in our country today?" 39 percent said the "decline in the teaching of values," while 35 percent said "inadequate parenting."
The entertainment industry (11 percent) and the gun industry (7 percent), two frequent targets of Washington political leaders, shoulder less of the blame, the Monitor/ TIPP poll found.
Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society