August 1, 2008

Ruling Has Parents Questioning ‘Decency’ on TV


Uh-oh. The indecency fine against CBS for Janet Jackson's televised breast-baring at the 2004 Super Bowl has been dismissed. Partner-swapping has gone prime time, thanks to the TV show "Swingtown." And the latest ads for the CW series "Gossip Girl" promise hotter sex than the average TV viewer probably ever experiences.

Getting nervous?

If you're raising kids, you may be wondering: Has TV only gotten wilder in the four years since the Super Bowl indecency fine was levied and the phrase "wardrobe malfunction" entered our vocabulary? Is prime time a safe place for kids?

The answer is complicated.

Broadcasters -- ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW -- still play by the same vaguely defined rules that they have used for years, attempting to grab the audience without sending viewers to the phones to call the FCC in anger.

And their recent programming "has been surprisingly tame," says Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University television professor and pop culture guru. The notorious "Gossip Girl" ads, he says, are much steamier than the actual show.

"Remember when the 's-word' barrier was broken by 'Chicago Hope'? That was back in '99 or 2000, and people said, 'Now that they've done it, everybody will be doing it.' Well, everybody is not doing it."

But the prime-time landscape has changed dramatically, making things more confusing for parents. If you're tackling this thorny topic, here are some variables to consider:

Has TV really gotten wilder?

There's more of everything on TV these days -- more sex, more violence, more preschool programming, more cooking and gardening and home repair advice. In short, more that's good, bad and in-between.

Basic cable channels like F/X and TNT attract fans with critically acclaimed, provocative shows that don't have to play by the same rules as broadcast shows. (You choose to invite cable programming into your house, the wisdom goes, so you're accepting its content.)

Some say broadcasters have ramped up nighttime sex and violence to compensate. But since the days of "Three's Company," much of the edgier content on broadcast TV has involved double entendres and sexually suggestive jokes that go over many kids' heads.

Much of the programming for young kids has splintered off to networks like Nick Jr. and the Disney Channel, a move some parents applaud. Lee Woodruff, who reports on parenting topics for ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," says even shows like Disney's "Hannah Montana" are "really pushing the envelope with sexing it up for young girls. ... That's disturbing for moms trying to raise girls with a sense of themselves and what's appropriate."

Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education at the Parents Television Council, says that the line between broadcast TV, basic cable and pay channels like HBO or Showtime has become porous: "We've seen a lot of crossover shows. Things originally developed for cable are appearing on broadcast TV or being promoted on broadcast TV." She mentions cleaned-up episodes of Showtime's bloody series "Dexter" airing on CBS.

What are kids watching ?

New shows now premiere year-round, and with so many channels available even in houses with only basic cable, kids can see a huge range of content.

"You can't possibly know about all the shows, unless you've got nothing going on in your life and you just watch TV with your kids 24/7," says Woodruff, who is also raising four kids between ages 8 and 17.

A show's audience may extend beyond its target market. On The CW, "Gossip Girl,""Supernatural" and "Smallville" feature hot young stars that appeal to teen and 'tween fans, though the network says its programming targets viewers 18 to 34. Parents may assume that a show's popularity with kids makes it appropriate, but then be shocked by the content.

But we tend to confuse "inappropriate" with "indecent."

"There's a big step between 'not appropriate' for little kids and 'it fits the definition of indecency,' " Thompson says. Nighttime broadcast programming may be more adult-oriented than ever, but that doesn't mean the networks are committing decency violations.

Academy of Television Arts & Sciences chairman John Shaffner points out that while some viewers say TV content has gotten obscene, the networks offer only what customers want.

"Television is a pig with a ring in its nose," he says, "and the audience has got that ring in its hands."

Any good news?

A live event like the Super Bowl incident doesn't tell us about what broadcasters are doing; they may well have been as surprised by it as anyone. If it was planned, it may have been planned by just a handful of people.

What's more, the FCC doesn't vet shows themselves or post guidelines. It only responds to complaints. So broadcasters can't ask in advance exactly what is over the line.

Parents do have tools at their disposal to control what gets watched. Kid-friendly fare from earlier in the day can be recorded and shown to kids during prime time. We can ban channels we disapprove of or stick to pre-screened DVDs.

Some parents opt to record shows on a DVR and watch them to vet the content before showing them to kids, and fast-forward through objectionable commercials. But that, of course, takes time.

"That's where the mom network is really helpful," Woodruff says. "I can't know about all the shows that are appropriate for them ... so I'll do a quick 411 info gathering. 'What are your girls watching? What's it like?' "

She adds: "It takes a village of cable TV watchers."

Tips to help parents

Know whether kids are watching broadcast TV, basic cable or pay cable.

If there are channels to which you object, learn about blocking them with the parental controls in your cable system or DVR.

Learn about TV ratings, which may help you evaluate shows. Keep in mind that TV violence is less strictly regulated than sex. "Courts have really never given the government as much leeway to regulate violent content," says Joel Timmer, associate professor of Radio, Television and Film at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. "From a legal perspective, violence has a lot more protection."

Limit overall TV time, which will make kids more conscious of picking shows worth watching.

Check the channel lineup regularly, says Doug Spero, an associate professor of mass communication at Meredith College in Raleigh. "Every couple of months they come out with a new card. You put this thing on thinking this was Disney, that was two months ago and now look what's on it," he says. "You can get broadsided by it. ... Who can keep track of 200 channels now?"

If your child has a few favorite shows, watch a few episodes of those shows with them to get familiar. Ask what they think about what characters are saying and doing, and let them know you're always available to answer questions.

"My youngest likes all those modeling shows," says Lisa Aubin, mother of girls 14 and 16. "I'll ask, 'Do you think what they're doing is important?' or 'Why do you think that's a good show to watch?'"

Keep your child's personality in mind. What works for one 12- year-old may be overwhelming for another.

Have kids watch in common areas of the home, so you can hear what they're watching even if you're not sitting with them. Lee Woodruff, a mom of four who reports on parenting topics for "Good Morning America," recently overheard the sound of MTV and checked on her twin girls, age 8. "They were just trying to find something on the Disney Channel and they'd stopped on MTV."

Re-evaluate every few months, occasionally adding shows to the "OK" list as kids mature. It can be hard to keep younger kids from watching with older siblings. But they may be more patient if they know you're regularly reassessing what they can see.

If you're watching prerecorded prime-time shows in the daytime, be aware of kids catching a few minutes. "TiVo makes everything accessible to everyone," says Woodruff. "My favorite shows, 'Lost,' 'Desperate Housewives,' 'CSI,' those are not appropriate for my kids."

Originally published by MELISSA RAYWORTH For The Associated Press.

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