Honey, I Warped the Kids


September 12, 1993|By RAYMOND K.K. HO

The greatest mass addiction in America today is not alcohol orcocaine, it is television.

The tube is America's electronic Trojan horse. It seemed so benign at first, but in less than 50 years, it has captured virtually all our leisure time, and hypnotized families, communities and the nation every day.

TV is the master teacher of our children and the biggest classroom without walls. It is the electronic pulpit of values and the cultural religion of our time. Americans learn more from television than anything else, but what are we teaching and what are we learning?

In a speech on "How Vast the Wasteland Now?" former FCC Chairman Newton Minow said, "I flipped through the channels and saw a man loading his gun on one channel, a different man aiming a gun on a second, and another man shooting a gun on a third."

The American child sees 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on television before he or she is out of school.

There are piles of published research on the impact of television dating back to its early days. Virtually all independent scholars agree that there is evidence that television can cause aggressive behavior. The visual impact of television and movies is so strong that some people find it hard to separate fact from fiction, real violence from screen violence.

There have been several Congressional hearings on television violence. Over the years, numerous groups have called for the curbing of television violence: The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (1969), the U.S. Surgeon General (1972), the National Institute of Mental Health (1982), the U.S. Attorney General's Task Force on Family Violence (1984), the National Parent/Teacher Association (1987) and the American Psychological Association (1992).

During these years, violence on television has escalated as the arms race of TV violence intensified among the broadcast networks, independent stations, cable and the movies. Congress has been more interested in protecting commerce and free speech than in protecting our children and society.

Television is not the only culprit for the violence in our society, but it is a leading one. Promoting and glamorizing violence on television has done more to increase the spread of guns, escalate the rate of crime, overload the criminal justice system and overcrowd our prisons than any other cause.

The medium that is teaching Americans what to buy in advertising is the same medium that is teaching them how to act in the programs. The persuasive power that Madison Avenue advertising executives boast about is the same power that is used to warp our kids. The dream factory of Hollywood is turning into a poison factory.

There is a link between viewing TV violence and anti-social behavior, especially in children. It's no surprise that saturated viewing leads to aggression and criminal behavior.

Even the president of CBS, Jeff Sagan, admitted that watching TV violence is harmful to viewers. He said, "If you're exposed to enough of it, it causes someone to be insensitive to violence."

The explosion of new TV channels in the international markets has given American media conglomerates a new frontier to colonize with our violent programs. The popularity of American culture has made the global market the fastest growing segment for the export of Hollywood-produced movies and television. A study by University of Washington Professor Brandon Centerwall documented that eight years after TV was introduced in South Africa in 1975, showing mostly Hollywood-produced programs, the murder rate skyrocketed.

In light of the evidence, it is shocking that producer Steven Bochco says he is sticking to his guns and won't back down from the nudity, harsh language and violence in his ABC series, ** "NYPD Blue," scheduled to debut this week. Not only does he think the show doesn't need a violence warning, when network executives themselves have identified it during the HTC Congressional hearing as a series violent enough to warrant one, but he argues that the broadcast networks had better push the envelope on sex and violence if they are to compete with cable.

The real crime in this debate is that public television is entirely left out of the discussion. Arguing over warning labels is like trying to put Band-aids over the cracks of the Titanic when the public television lifeboat is available.

Television is like the weather -- everybody talks about it, but no one can do anything about it. It's much easier to curse the darkness than to light a candle. But at Maryland Public Television, we lit a candle. While the debate rages on, MPT created the new Children's Channel as a safe haven, where parents can use television to educate their children and get them ready to learn before they enter school.

Does TV have to remain "a vast wasteland" or can it be transformed into a chariot of grace? Does it have to mirror the darker side of man or can it illuminate a brighter vision of what mankind can aspire to be?

The answer depends in part on whether public television is successful in setting an example of what TV can and should be in the years ahead.

Raymond Ho is president of Maryland Public Television. Barry Rascovar, whose column usually appears on this page, is on vacation. His column will return Sept. 26.

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