Bob Thompson tells me he's talked to sixth-graders who could quote chapter and verse from HBO's "Sex and the City." This surprised Mr. Thompson, who is director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
And it shocked me. I'm barely mature enough to have watched that raunchy show. I loved "Sex and the City," but it made me blush. Children have no business tuning in.
So whose fault is it when they do? Politicians say it's Hollywood's fault. Hollywood says it's the parents' fault. Parents say it's the politicians' fault for not stopping Hollywood.
Before those pointed fingers hurt someone, let's pin down the problem: It's not so much what's on TV, but what children are seeing. So before parents point a finger, they should lift it. They do have tools to control what their children watch.
"People are screaming bloody murder that there's bad stuff on TV," Thompson says. "But the little things they can do, they're not doing." More on those tools in a minute.
TV isn't going back to the days of "Honey, I'm home!" and husbands sleeping in beds two yards from their wives'. Nor should we want it to. The big change started with the 1970s series "All in the Family." No one had heard characters like Archie and Edith Bunker talk about abortion, impotence, and their raw prejudices on family-hour TV. (A warning preceded the show.) Before that, nothing had been broadcast that a 7-year-old couldn't handle.
Television has turned progressively lewd, foul-mouthed, and offensive. The trade-off is that it has become more grown-up and, in many ways, more interesting. Which cop show would you rather watch, the childish "CHiPs" of the 1980s or today's "CSI"?
Vulgar and gritty TV is here to stay. The goal is to keep children away from it. So back to the tools, or what Thompson lists as "the minimal things" parents can do. First there's the V-chip. Remember that? It lets adults block certain programming based on one of eight ratings: The most restrictive is TV-Y. Designed for children age 2 to 6, it bars even frightening cartoons. The least restrictive is TV-MA, which cuts out programming meant for mature audiences only. This means shows with graphic violence, explicit sex, and crude language.
The V-chip has been required on most TVs sold in the past five years, yet few parents bother with it.
"Only a tiny percentage is actually learning how to use the V-chip," Thompson reports, "and it's not hard to do." (The FCC explains the V-chip at www.fcc.gov/vchip, and offers a link to the directions.)
The next thing parents can do, he says, is to take the TV out of their children's bedrooms. Parents can keep better track of TV viewing when it takes place in the family room.
I marvel at how those sixth-graders got through to "Sex and the City" - and how little their parents did to stop them. First, the family had to have cable, which the parents paid for. HBO is a premium channel, so the parents had to pay extra for that. (Reruns of the program are available, however, on basic cable's TBS.) Most cable systems offer a "parental control" feature that locks objectionable channels. The parents obviously didn't use it. Nor did they activate the V-chip - if they had one.
If the kids saw "Sex and the City" at a friend's house, parents didn't adequately supervise where they went. If they saw it in their own bedrooms, then the parents ignored warnings against putting TVs there.
Finally, I can't rule out the possibility that the parents didn't really mind if their sixth-graders watched "Sex and the City." For all I know, they may have watched it together as family entertainment.
Parents do deserve some sympathy. Protecting children from the rough content on TV is a much harder challenge today than a generation ago. But parents are far from powerless. Ultimately, nothing comes into the house that they don't permit. And, as a last resort, they can always smash the television set.
• Froma Harrop is a member of The Providence Journal editorial board. © 2005 The Providence Journal Co. Distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.