Family TV: The People and the Pretenders

A new survey of more than 4,000 television viewers finds that 1) more than one-third of them have seen programming they consider "personally offensive or morally objectionable," and that they associate such programming more with broadcast networks than with cable channels; 2) adults without children at home are offended by shows almost as often as are parents with children; and 3) a clear majority of adults with children ages 2 through 11 try to set aside time for family TV viewing.

The study, issued by a division of the giant ad agency McCann-Erickson, was the idea of Bill Cella, an executive vice president at McCann. Cella also is involved with the Family Friendly Programming Forum, a group of several dozen major television advertisers that seeks to "encourage more TV programs that parents and children can enjoy together."

Cella and McCann-Erickson deserve high praise for helping to make the case that there's a great deal of dissatisfaction among American families regarding their extremely limited prime time viewing options. But common sense tells us this isn't a revelation of Dead Sea Scrolls magnitude. Hollywood knows this. The question is, why doesn't Hollywood care?

Truth to tell, there's one element in this industry that is positively giggling at the study's results. It is those who are adamant about tearing down traditional values, driven by the desire to offend parents. To the Howard Sterns of television, this bad news is good news.

But a bigger problem for the pro-family content camp is that Hollywood isn't taking the complaints seriously, and for good reason.

Here's what Hollywood also knows: You delve a bit deeper and find that these "responsible" advertisers and parents are also, in large measure, responsible for the sewage. Take McCann-Erickson and one Forum member, Coca-Cola, which also happens to be one of its clients. It is with their patronage that the raunchy prep-school drama "Young Americans" ran for eight weeks this summer on the WB network.

According to Advertising Age, a unit of McCann-Erickson "arranged" for Coke to sponsor the show - and by "sponsor" I don't mean merely buying thirty-second spots here and there. Reportedly, Coke sank $6 million into the effort; the program's title, in fact, became "Coca-Cola Presents 'Young Americans.'" Moreover, Coke products were incorporated into episodes: When a "Young Americans" character walked into a restaurant and ordered a soft drink, it wasn't a Pepsi.

Here is a member of the Family Friendly Programming Forum committed on a large scale to a series whose premiere featured a teenage boy reminiscing about being nine, when his friend and he were "reading porno mags and smoking butts"; another teen boy lying to his buddy, "I had sex mother's best friend"; and a literature teacher telling his students that passion "doesn't come from here," indicating his head. "It doesn't come from here," indicating his heart. "It comes from right here" - grabbing his crotch.

Later in the season, a teen couple learns they have the same father and officially ends their romance, yet each continues to pine for the other. In the words of Entertainment Weekly, "Young Americans" "probably [was] the first TV show that flirt[ed] with teen incest by trying to make it seem like mere puppy love." A non-incestuous teen couple is caught in the shower by a teacher - the same teacher who had an affair with the dean's wife.

The Family Friendly Programming Forum's web site says that to qualify as family-friendly, a program should "contain no elements that the average viewer would find offensive or that the average parent is embarrassed to see with children in the room." Does that sound like "Young Americans" to you?

And what of parents? Sure, some are incensed beyond measure at the way television is polluting children's minds - or so they tell the pollsters. But do they really care?

Another recent survey - this from the Annenberg Public Policy Center - puts the parental angst quotient in its proper perspective. This study found that 47 percent of parents allow their children to have televisions in their bedrooms. In other words, roughly half the parents in this country have made the conscious decision to do nothing about this awful state of affairs. They are not just permitting it; they're condoning it.

Hollywood knows all this. Until corporate America and parents themselves decide to shape up - really shape up - first, Hollywood will continue to disregard studies like McCann-Erickson's.