When talk turns to family values whatever family values are some shows have more than others

July 26, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- He has been challenged, criticized and flat out mocked. But nobody out here has been talked about as much in connection with the fall TV season as Vice President Dan Quayle.

Quayle's attack on "Murphy Brown" and Hollywood in general for what he sees as a lack of "family values" continues to reverberate and hang over discussions of the new TV season, which begins next month.

The character Murphy Brown is a single woman who had a baby last season.

Diane English, the creator of "Murphy Brown," said the show will respond to Quayle in a one-hour season opener titled "Murphy's Revenge." But English was peppered with so many questions about family values at a press conference here last week that finally she asked reporters if they would drop the subject.

"Those two words: family values," she told critics attending the fall press tour. "Why did no one talk about it last year or the year before? That's what really angers me. . . . I am not even sure what it means. Can anybody define what that means? If anybody can define it, then maybe we'll address it. But, at this point, I think it's very individual for each person. So, it's two words I'd like to see not put together so much any more."

Network executives and producers have tried to dismiss Quayle's remarks as purely political posturing in an election year. But somehow the discussion keeps coming back to them, as it did in the press conference with English.

One reason the remarks continue to trigger debate is that television, more than any other medium of popular culture, is a family medium. Since television's earliest days, shows about families have dominated prime time. They have been used to attract and deliver audiences of families to advertisers selling goods targeted at families. In that sense, Quayle's attack has the potential to challenge television's image and its ability to do the kind of business it does best in family goods.

That's why Hollywood is responding to Quayle with television's top guns shooting back.

"First of all, I think it was purely political," CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky said. "And I don't think CBS has anything to apologize for. When you look at the shows on our schedule, from 'Evening Shade'. . . to 'Major Dad,' there are a number of shows that espouse these so-called family values. Although I think they are extremely nebulous and are probably clearest in Dan Quayle's mind.

"But I also think that from the looks of things, Dan Quayle is going to have a lot of time next year to discover all the family values that are in fact on television."

When Bob Iger, the president of ABC Entertainment, was asked how his company was responding to Quayle's remarks, he said, "We've sent everybody to school to learn to spell a little better."

But then he added, "I don't mean to be snide on the subject. But we feel we've always been well aware of what's going on in terms of sociological trends in the country. I don't think we've programmed our network in an irresponsible manner. . . . I don't think there's any need for us to change our ways."

Even those who see no need to change say Quayle's remarks have

caused reflection and analysis.

"In terms of family values, . . . we do spend a lot of time talking about it," said Peter Chernin, president of Fox Entertainment. "I personally believe that 'The Simpsons' is a show that is as much about values as any on television, because it tries to deal with value questions from a very realistic point of view.

"If Mr. Quayle wants shows where Mom and Dad sit on the couch and ask Junior about his homework, that may be very traditional, but I don't think it's particularly relevant to the majority of Americans. And we are trying to be relevant.

"You know, I am probably cynical enough to assume that Mr. Quayle's motives were largely political. On the other hand, I do think that just the degree to which this whole subject has heated up is indicative that there are real concerns about these issues out there."

But while Quayle has influenced much of the discussion about the new season, it does not appear that he's had any real effect on the shows themselves.

English, for example, has a new CBS show, "Love and War," starring Susan Dey and Jay Thomas, with an opening episode that features a long discussion played for laughs about different kinds of condoms.

"We're not a family show. There are no children on this show. These people aren't married. Family values is not a priority," she said, without apology.

And in each of the dozen or so new shows targeted to and about persons in their 20s, not surprisingly, there is a considerable amount of sex between characters who are not married.

As Martin Lawrence, the comedian who stars in a Fox show about an unmarried couple living together, said sarcastically, "If Quayle would have written this show, we'd be married. But he didn't write the show."

In the end, Quayle is both right and dead wrong about family values.

He's right in his charge that TV shows have messages and that those messages matter. Sure, Murphy Brown is only a fictional character, but the show is still transmitting a ton of ideological messages, which it's fair to call values.

But Quayle is wrong to try to make the case that the medium is being run by a liberal "cultural elite" that mocks family values.

The corporate folks running the network are most conservative, and there is nothing they are more careful about than their core of traditional family shows that attract and deliver families to advertisers who are selling family goods.

There's "Full House," "Family Matters," "Step by Step," "I'll Fly Away," "Home Improvement," "Roseanne." The list of such shows goes on and on. There is nothing nontraditional about such shows. And they are the backbone of prime-time TV.

"When I look at shows like 'Brooklyn Bridge,' " Sagansky said, "what could be more obvious than what those shows stand for?"

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