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Jewish World Review May 8, 2001 / 15 Iyar, 5761

Cal Thomas

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Consumer Reports

TOO BAD the Hollywood writers didn't strike. It might have provided a respite from the air pollution some of them crank out which is inappropriately labeled "entertainment.''

TV writers, programmers, performers and executives -- the "Vulgarians at the Gate,'' as a real entertainer, Steve Allen, called them in his posthumously published book -- may be about to seek even lower levels. NBC President Bob Wright has sent a letter to executives at his network and other TV studios and production companies, appearing to indicate that network broadcasters are disadvantaged because their programs can't be as vulgar as some cable TV shows. Specifically, Wright mentions the hit HBO series, "The Sopranos,'' which features a level of violence, sexual acts and profanity the networks feel they can't imitate.

Instead of polling network and entertainment executives, Wright should consider what a vast majority of the public thinks. The May 15 issue of Family Circle magazine would be a good place to start. Seventy-seven percent of the men and women polled by the magazine say they have a problem with the sexual content of TV. Sixty-one percent say they don't watch some shows because of sexual content, and 84 percent say there are some shows they won't allow their children to watch. Ninety-three percent have turned off the TV or changed the channel during a program because of sexual content.

A Federal Trade Commission report last year found that the entertainment industry is targeting violent films, music and video games to young people. In a Newsweek survey last fall, more than nine in 10 parents of children ages 5-17 said limiting the amount of violence children are exposed to in the media is an important factor in reducing crime. A Gallup poll taken after the Columbine High School shootings found that 81 percent of American adults believe violent entertainment contributes to violence in society.

Network executives closely watch the number of viewers they can attract because it determines how much they can charge advertisers. In recent years, network ratings and market share have declined. Many people say they've stopped watching because of violent and sexual content. Increasing numbers are finding other forms of entertainment and some people have even decided to get rid of their TVs, treating them like the other garbage they remove from their homes. TV executives prove how far out of touch they are by concluding that what people want is not less sex and violence, but more. When ratings decline even further, they refuse to get the message, but increase the sleaze.

Bob Wright, who has lobbied the New York City Council to block a proposed resolution which endorses a federal plan for General Electric -- NBC's parent company -- to clean up the Hudson River it began polluting with PCBs in 1946, is apparently looking for new ways to pollute the airwaves. At least when it comes to pollution, Wright is consistent.

Steve Allen makes the point in "Vulgarians at the Gate'' that the coarsening of our culture doesn't happen by accident: "...the consequences of rearing millions of initially innocent children in a social atmosphere characterized by vulgarity, violence, brutish manners, the collapse of the family, and general disrespect for traditional codes of conduct is to chill the blood of even the most tolerant of observers.''

Network executives don't have the moral fiber to stop pollution on their own, any more than some corporate executives would clean up the air and water if they were not forced to do so. Censorship may not be the answer to polluted TV but parental responsibility is. A recent study by Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati found that 40 percent of 2-year-olds are watching a minimum of three hours of TV per day. The American Academy of Pediatrics says kids under age 2 should not be watching TV at all, and those between 2 and 5 should be strictly limited to two hours per day.

Turn off the TV or, better yet, get rid of it. Try dinner table conversation, meet your neighbors, read good books, rent old movies or, if the TV remains, block out all but the really good things. Even network executives might take notice and stop fouling the airwaves, thus raising the standard of popular culture for all.

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