Ha-ha-ha! Who gets the last laugh now?

September 21, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Finally, after nearly five months of very loud debate in the media, Murphy Brown is going to respond to Dan Quayle tonight, with probably 35 million viewers watching.

The sad thing is that, despite all the TV talk and newspaper analysis, we aren't much smarter about TV and politics, TV and role models, TV and the American family, than we were when all of this started in May. It's mainly been a shouting match of sound bites and fury signifying only how thoroughly we have become a TV culture.

All of us in the press have gone a little tabloid-crazy this summer, writing about fake scripts vs. real scripts in trying to find out how Brown responds in the season opener, which airs at 9 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11). CBS did not, of course, make the show available for preview. This is the "Who Shot J.R.?" ratings stratosphere, where the less known means more audience.

Brown's response involves the following, according to the best information available:

At one point, while she is taking care of her baby boy, she hears Quayle's remarks about her on TV and shouts in exasperation, "I'm glamorizing single motherhood? What planet is he on? I agonized over that decision."

At a later point in the hour, Brown, the TV journalist, responds directly to Quayle over the airwaves, saying, "Perhaps it's time for the vice president to expand his definition and recognize that, whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes. And, ultimately, what really defines a family is caring and love."

That's not going to settle the discussion. In fact, the media debate is likely to get even more confusing in the wake of tonight's show -- with all kinds of spin being put on it by various players. David Beckwith, Quayle's press secretary, for example, can be seen on "Entertainment Tonight," at 7:30 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13) saying that Quayle "carefully targeted" Brown, trying to make it sound like Quayle & Co. are brilliant political operatives who had this all planned.

The discussion that counts -- the healthy one -- is the one among members of the viewing audience themselves. Here are some factors to consider when forming your opinions -- factors the media has done a poor job of explaining.

* Quayle is right. TV shows do carry an ideology -- messages and values. The initial response to Quayle, which said, "Hey, Dan, it's only make-believe, lighten up," missed the point that it doesn't matter if a TV character is make-believe. Make-believe characters still embody and promote values.

* Quayle is wrong. Remember how this all started in the wake of the riots with Quayle talking about "role models" and suggesting that Brown's decision to have a baby would encourage pregnancy among unwed, teen girls?

First, not many teens watch "Murphy Brown," according to A. C. Nielsen. The show's a big hit, but it's not not even Top 25 with teens.

Second, by the time children are 13, most get their primary sense of what constitutes normative behavior from places other than TV. This comes from Dr. Sheri Parks, who teaches TV at the University of Maryland College Park, and Dr. Patricia Marks Greenfield's extensive survey of research on the matter in "Mind and Media."

* Money talks. The TV industry has responded with such virulence and unity to Quayle's "family values" remarks because of economic concerns, not some sense of righteousness about the sanctity of family life. TV's most important audience is young families that buy lots of cereal, diapers and soda pop. That's the audience TV has to have if it wants to make money, according to Alan Wurtzel, senior vice president for research and marketing at ABC.

Quayle's remarks literally struck at the core of the TV industry. But the analysis of the industry's reaction -- from that of CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky to everybody at the Emmy telecast -- should be one of economics, not culture.

* Much of the emotion connected to this debate is not even about family values. It's about gender. Murphy Brown (make-believe as she is) is perceived as being a smart and hard-working woman, while Dan Quayle is seen by many to be a dumb and privileged man.

For women of Murphy creator Diane English's generation, Quayle is the boy in high school who they knew was not as smart or hard- working as they were but who got to be student council president, while they served as secretary or treasurer, because he was a boy and they were girls. They had to "serve" in his cabinet and act like his pronouncements were not as dumb as they knew them to be.

A lot of women will be tuning in tonight to hear someone tell that boy just how dumb he is.

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