Dispatch Television Critic
July 14, 1997
Television is under attack -- and many groups are joining forces against it.
The heavy artillery is aimed at the content of programs, at the amount and degree of sex, violence and profane language in prime-time series.
The debate culminated earlier this year in a voluntary, age-based ratings system to which content judgements soon will be added.
While commercial stations have agreed to air at least three hours of educational programming a week beginning in September, the real battle is being fought elsewhere -- not over the small strip of turf designated as children's television but over the bigger, more lucrative beachhead of prime time.
Everyone would like to think that kids watch only Sesame Street, Shining Time Station and Animaniacs -- the good stuff, the stuff designed specifically for kids.
In fact, children watch more prime-time television than anything else -- adult-themed series such as Friends; Beverly Hills, 90210; and The Nanny. They watch more television from 8 to 9 p.m. than on Saturday mornings or on weekday afternoons, according to Nielsen Media Research.
On a typical night in the United States, 13.1 million children 17 and younger are watching prime-time shows. (The "family hour" from 8 to 9 p.m. ended in 1976 because of antitrust and First Amendment objections.)
"Repeated exposure to media violence, especially when found on television, is directly responsible for the increase in aggression and desensitisation in our children," Madeline Levine writes in Viewing Violence: How Media Violence Affects Your Child's and Adolescent's Development.
The average prime-time show, Levine charges, has five violent acts per hour; cartoons have an average of 25 per hour.
By early adolescence, she says, children have viewed more than 8,000 killings and 100,000 other violent acts on television.
Two Cleveland researchers share her concern about the effects of television on young psyches.
In a study released last month to the Ohio Department of Mental Health, Professors Mark I. Singer and David B. Miller of Case Western Reserve University reported that children in grades three through eight who watch significantly more television than their peers display the highest propensity toward psychological trauma.
That doesn't mean, however, that violence on television is causing kids to have problems, Singer said.
It may mean that kids with problems are using television as "a way to numb out, to escape," he declared. "Kids who have pre-existing depression or anxiety can literally numb themselves and make problems go away temporarily by watching large amounts of television."
Still, "both boys and girls who preferred shows with lots of action and fighting -- the high-violence programs -- had significantly higher anger scores compared with other students. They also reported more aggression toward others."
A causal link between watching violence and engaging in it is disproved by the Japanese experience, said Jack Levin, director of the Program for the Study of Violence at North-eastern University in Boston.
"There is a lot more violence on Japanese TV (than American TV) and almost no murder in the streets," he said.
The short answer to the question of whether violent television creates violent kids: Nobody knows. Despite the impassioned rhetoric of children's advocates, no one can say for sure how violent television affects a child's psyche.
"It isn't as if, if they see a violent act, they'll go out and do it," said Theresa Sadek, principal of Medary Elementary School in Columbus. "The point is that violence on television diminishes the value of life."
Sexual innuendoes raise the ire of the Parents Television Council, a conservative think tank that issues annual reports on the sexual content of network programs in the early evening. The reports count obscenities and sexual references.
Between 1995 and '97, the latest council report says, "foul language increased dramatically."
The Kaiser Family Foundation, a California advocacy group, analysed prime-time programs from the 1996-97 season and found that three of four programs had sexual content and 30 percent made sex a primary focus.
In a 1996 survey of parents nation-wide, the foundation discovered that parents are more concerned about sexual content than violence in prime-time television: Forty-three percent of parents said they worry about depictions of sexuality, while 39 percent said violence troubles them.
Sixty-eight percent acknowledged being able to join their children when they watch television only about half the time.