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Jewish World Review Aug. 2, 1999/20 Av , 5759

Larry Elder

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More Television, More Crime? -- A NEWSPAPER CARTOON shows a beleaguered Willy Loman-esque businessman, shoulders hunched, walking down the street, briefcase in hand. He looks up, and sees a pigeon sitting on a tree branch, with the bird's "business end" directly above the guy's head.

"Go ahead," says the businessman. "Everybody else has."

Today's prime time television execs can relate. A group led by Steve Allen, former President Jimmy Carter, General Colin Powell, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, and others, sent a letter to Hollywood. Watch it, they said. Make decent shows, devoid of excessive sex and violence, or expect government regulation to do it for you. See, according to them, the good folk in America are mad as hell and are just not gonna take it any more!

Attacking programming quality, the group said, "American parents today are deeply worried about their children's exposure to an increasingly toxic popular culture ... " They called for a "new social compact aimed at renewing our culture and making our media environment more healthy for society and safer for our children."

"Toxic?" Really.

But, if the entertainment industry puts on "toxic" stuff, should they lead the charge to "renew our American culture"? Do we really want to appoint as Minister of Taste the folks who greenlighted "Cop Rock" or "Dukes of Hazzard"?

The Hollywood-should-be-more-responsible group cited polling data showing parents' concern about excessive sex and violence. OK. But why did "The Last Don" and "The Last Don II," two graphically violent TV movies, score huge ratings? And, if some pollster says, "Are you concerned about excessive sex and violence on TV?" who's gonna say, "Well, not really"?

"Toxic?" Last time I checked, I saw a lot of good stuff on TV -- the Bravo, Disney, Discovery, History and Learning Channels; A&E, PBS and C-SPAN, as well as quality network newsmagazine shows like "60 Minutes," "Dateline," and "20/20." As far as the Big Four networks go -- NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX, their "control" over the TV market grows weaker and weaker. A generation ago, the networks could claim a near monopoly on viewership. Today, the Big Four market share stands at 40 percent, and falling.

Are parents truly "mad as hell"? A TV program does not make it without advertiser support. And most advertisers are as skittish as David Duke at the Million Man March. A single letter can cause a nervous advertiser to call its media buyer and demand answers. Do you think American Airlines, Sears, IBM, and General Motors care less than Messrs. Allen, Powell, Carter, and McCain whether a sitcom offends a housewife in Des Moines?

Take "NYPD Blue." When it aired, several affiliates refused to show it, citing advertiser jitters. The show became popular, and the ratings went up, magically solving the concerns of advertisers who gladly returned.

The group wants Hollywood to help "renew our American culture." But just how bad is our culture? What salacious movies or excessively violent video games were seen by Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, or the rulers of Imperial Japan? Japan, Germany, and Italy take pride on their refined, sophisticated "culture," a culture that saw its leaders plunge the world into a global conflict resulting in over 50 million deaths.

Besides, I thought American kids watched too much television. Why try to make television more appealing to the very kids who need to watch less of it? Maybe the group feels, what the hey, kids devour TV, might as well stick some fruit and vegetables in them. "The Sopranos," an HBO series, recently garnered 16 Emmy nominations. This well-written show, which follows a Mafia family, is wall-to-wall violence and profanity.

What, according to the "Storm Hollywood" crowd, does the popular and critical success of "The Sopranos" say about our culture?

No doubt, television is clearly influential. During the '50s, "Davy Crockett" made every kid on the block wear a coonskin cap. And what American teenage boy didn't run out and get a white T-shirt after Marlon Brando's performance in "A Streetcar Named Desire"?

But television's influence on the unstable, those without values, eludes easy answers. Perhaps the book, "My Father's Face," by James Robison, provides a useful starting place. There, a chaplain of a federal penitentiary decided to improve morale. He contacted a major greeting card company, and got 500 free Mother's Day cards, one for each prisoner. He asked inmates whether they wished to fill out the cards, to be mailed at prison expense. They enthusiastically wrote notes to their moms on the cards, and mailed them in. The chaplain decided to repeat this success on Father's Day. He again got 500 free cards, but not one inmate wanted to send a card to his dad. Not one.

So, in the fight against senseless violence, Hollywood remains a tempting target. But don't blame the remote control. Blame a remote dad.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate