What Children Watch

With the Writers Guild on strike in Hollywood, the forecast for so-called "reality" TV shows has probably never looked brighter. The networks keep attempting to find new programming schticks, and perhaps no "reality" show had a stranger buildup than CBS's "Kid Nation," which drew a pile of negative early publicity for being an alleged labor camp or sweatshop for youngsters in New Mexico.

The publicity put the show on the TV map, but it also largely scared advertisers away from the premiere. But the program itself wasn't exactly "Stalag 17." The show's "reality" plot is simple. In a ghost town called Bonanza City, four different teams of children perform different chores like cooking or doing dishes, and they elect their leaders so we can hear kiddie campaign rhetoric. Each week, the elected team leaders decide which child will win a gold star worth $20,000. The whole formula has found a ready-made audience among the two-to-eleven Nielsen ratings demographic.

That doesn't mean it doesn't feel like child exploitation on some occasions. When "reality" show contestants break down and cry on a show like "The Bachelor," lamenting a lost love of the last 17 days, it can be easy to cast a skeptical eye on the emotion-wringing process. But when a nine-year-old girl on this show cries and wants to go home, you feel for her - and then resent the people fueling their Cadillac Escalade hybrids by manipulating these sob scenes for TV.

Often these "Kid Nation" cast members seem older than their years, sometimes in all the wrong ways. For example, Greg, the show's surly long-haired bully, unleashes profanity-laced tirades on camera, which the producers bleep out. So why is bleeped profanity necessary? It's not live television. Instead, it's carefully edited into the show. One of the show's girls was shown cursing as well, but at least she apologized for it. It would be nice if the producers apologized for making sure the outburst was broadcast. This is TV about kids, for kids. Would it be so unreasonable to scissor the bleep scenes?

"Kid Nation" is not alone. Other "reality" shows have used bleeped profanity to underline how children are out of control. "Wife Swap," "Supernanny," and "Nanny 911" have all featured bleeping as a plotting exclamation point, an Instant Brat Alert. Bleeping expletives have become so routine on its trip into the cultural mainstream from MTV shows like "The Osbournes" that many parents probably don't even pause when they watch the children on TV spew them.

This is doubly important because "reality" shows are a top viewing option for children. Of the top 20 shows watched by the nation's youth, only seven were traditional scripted series. The others were "reality" shows like "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and game shows like "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" With the way we have been inundated with gruesome "CSI" knockoffs and sex-obsessed "Grey's Anatomy" spinoffs, it would be nice if somehow the networks and the viewers could sustain more positive, family-friendly "reality" TV shows.

By contrast, six of the top seven scripted shows watched by children carry some of the nastiest sexual and violent content on TV, but also the ones most likely to have a major following among parents, including the aforementioned "CSI" and "Grey's Anatomy." Two of those shows with heavy "adult" themes are Fox's Sunday night cartoons "Family Guy" and "American Dad," a weekly double feature of filth from creator Seth MacFarlane.

"Family Guy" is so prevalent everywhere it can be seen at all hours of the day. TBS even shows full episodes on the Internet. It's become a marketing juggernaut. When Fox wanted to hype the debut of its crude R-rated teen comedy "Superbad," it paired the stars with four episodes of "Family Guy" on Fox, including that infamous episode where Bill Clinton is so seductive he has sex with both Peter Griffin and Lois Griffin, the cartoon's leading man and woman.

Now Fox's iconic idiot is even making its way into commercials, with Peter the obese title character touting the Subway Feast: "it's as big as my head." Fox's army of merchandisers is delighted. "Subway's attitude and irreverence is the perfect platform for the 'Family Guy' brand's trademark twisted humor," said one Vice President for Spinning Off Sleaze.

The latest "Family Guy" plot featured Peter touting how he tattooed his private parts to look like the space shuttle. As for "American Dad," it recently aired an episode with themes of incestuous masturbation. Perhaps Subway can work all that into a commercial, too.

The network chieftains approving all this "adult" TV would assert that it's unreasonable for parents to think their children aren't exposed to this kind of "reality" in their daily lives at school or in the neighborhood. But if parents worry about the problem of "monkey see, monkey do," nobody's a bigger monkey to children than Hollywood.