'The video equivalent of a Twinkie' TV violence, content criticized

April 30, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Kids may think they've never had it so good.

From the 24-hour Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon to the Fox (( Children's Network, children have more television programs targeted at them than at any time since TV sets first appeared in American living rooms more than four decades ago. "X-Men." "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." "Saved by the Bell." "Full House." "The Simpsons." The list goes on and on.

But in this case, critics of children's television say, more is less.

In 1980, the three major networks were showing 11 hours of educational shows like the now defunct "Schoolhouse Rock," according to a study by Squire Rushnell, a former vice president for children's television at ABC. By 1990, such programming had dwindled to less than two hours a week. "It's less than an hour today," Mr. Rushnell says.

Children's television "today remains the video equivalent of a Twinkie. Kids enjoy it despite the absolute absence of any nutritional content," says Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees the television industry.

Although the 1990 Children's Television Act requires broadcasters to air "educational and informational programming" for children, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission largely left it up to broadcasters to decide what that meant.

"For three years, the act was ignored," Carol Rasco, a top domestic policy adviser to President Clinton told the National Summit on Children and Families in early April. "The same kinds of folks who informed us that ketchup is a vegetable were happy to certify 'G.I. Joe' as an educational television program."

People have been complaining about television and its effect on children almost since the first black-and-white sets began appearing in the late 1940s. But the subject of TV and kids is especially volatile today. There's even a growing movement by doctors and other health experts to label television violence a public health threat that needs as much attention as guns, drugs and alcohol.

The harshest critics concede that other factors -- such as economic woes and family disintegration -- also are at work. But the fact remains that television is more violent than ever before and offers fewer opportunities for education, studies show. Parents and researchers complain that children are routinely presented with stereotypes about women, minorities, the poor and elderly and skewed values about sex, drugs and alcohol.

"This is not something our parents were up against. They just had Ward and June fighting about what to do about the Beaver. This isn't quite the same when there's murder and nude scenes all the time," says Karen Zink-Brown, a Catonsville mother of three who is part of a Maryland-wide grass-roots movement, nTC Campaign for Kids TV, which plans to "adopt" local stations to monitor children's programming.

The main course on the children's TV menu today is likely to be a show like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," a cartoon that features so many karate-kicks and other violence that many parents react as La Atwater of Catonsville does when her 4-year-old daughter Caroline asks to watch. "I just cringe."

University of Washington epidemiologist Brandon Centerwall argues in a new study that television violence leads to real violence.

He compared homicide rates among whites in the United States and Canada and South Africa between 1947 and 1975. South Africa banned television during that quarter-century.

His findings: A 93 percent increase in the American murder rate, a 92 percent jump in Canada. In South Africa, the murder rate went down by 7 percent. Dr. Centerwall considered other explanations for the dramatic increase such as civil unrest, availability of firearms and economic conditions. "None provides a viable explanation," he says.

"There's a difference between correlation and cause and effect," counters Chuck Sherman, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.

In a study last year, TV Guide gave a chilling breakdown of the violence displayed over 10 Washington, D.C., stations during one 18-hour period in April 1992. The tally was 1,846 individual acts of violence. Among them: 362 scenes of gunplay; 389 assaults; 673 scenes of punching, pushing, slapping, dragging; 226 scenes of menacing with a weapon, and at least 175 fatalities.

ADVICE FROM THE EXPERTS

* Experts on children and television suggest several ways that parents can try to counter the negative effects on children of watching television:

* Help your child make a time chart of daily activities: homework, play, TV-watching, etc. Talk about what to eliminate and put in its place.

* Set a weekly viewing limit. Let your child choose programs at the beginning of the week. Assign points to programs and give the child a total to spend weekly. Programs you don't want your child to watch can "cost" more points.

* Watch television with your children and talk about what you see so they learn there are other ways of looking at what's on.

* Watch at least one episode of your child's favorite shows to learn how violent they are. Talk about why the violence happened and the pain it causes. Ask your child how conflicts can be solved without violence.

* Adopt a television station. In Maryland, parents and community groups have teamed up to monitor children's programming at local stations and meet with station officials to discuss their concerns. For more information about the campaign, contact the Center for Media Education, P.O. Box 33039, Washington, D.C. 20033-0039 or call 301-270-3379.

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