Using remote (and direct) control

October 27, 1997|By Jim Sollisch

I WAS WATCHING television with my kids the other night, something I try not to do very often because, quite frankly, my kids have horrible taste in TV shows. This should come as no big surprise, considering my kids' taste in music, food and books. Left to their own devices, kids just can't be trusted to listen to Beethoven, eat tofu or read Shakespeare.

So we try to guide them. A little dose of Beethoven's 9th in the car when they can't escape. Tofu breaded and fried and disguised as chicken fingers. Shakespeare disguised as Mel Gibson. But when it comes to TV, most of us just bail out, waiting for somebody else to devise a rating system we can trust.

So there I was watching a made-for-TV movie with my kids. If it had been rated, it would have been PG, maybe even G. (According to a study by the Parents Television Council, 61 percent of all programming was rated PG, including shows that contained torture, masturbation, profanity and Jenny McCarthy).

The movie was about a college football star battling alcohol abuse and a distant father. You've seen this movie a thousand times. Stardom, fall, redemption. All sugar-coated and neatly wrapped between commercials.

I was lulled almost to sleep by the predictability when suddenly a girl is being assaulted at a party by the handsome football star. Classic date rape scenario. They kiss. She's quite willing. He goes farther. She says no. He throws her on the bed. It's clear he's going to rape her. She screams. Finally some guys drag him off. The scene is quite powerful; you can feel her terror.

I jumped up to turn off the set so I could discuss this with my kids, ages 6-11. One of the boys said, "What's the big deal? Nothing happened."

The rating board, apparently, would agree. No nudity. No profanity. No sex. Just simple dating procedure. I launched into a lecture on date rape. I asked my kids, especially the boys, to imagine and then say how the girl must have felt. How long she might be traumatized by those events.

Finally, they agreed that something had happened. Something that happens a lot. Something much worse and more damaging than a four-letter word or a passionate love scene.

The problem with any rating system is that, like my kids, it lacks a moral point of view. If my kids had known that something serious had indeed happened on that screen, then I wouldn't have minded them watching it so much.

Content isn't the real problem. Which is why the current push to go beyond age-based ratings to a code that describes content as containing violence, nudity, profanity or sexual situations isn't a substitute for parental guideance.


A system that plops letters on the screen have to include the same "N" for nudity in a documentary on an artist who painted nudes as it would for a Playboy Channel show on strippers.

There's no code letter that can distinguish a tender love scene from an S & M encounter. The violence in a war movie is the same "V" as Freddy Krueger's brand of violence. Moral point of view is everything. And yet most of the kids I know have the following point of view: "If it's rated 'G' or 'PG', then it's OK." They assume that if we let them watch the show, then not only is the program OK, but the behaviors it contains must be OK. It's all morally neutral to them, implicitly endorsed by those who let them watch: their parents.

It's funny. The Parents Television Council, after studying 150 hours of rated programming, gave the new rating system a grade of "F." The problem is that there isn't enough information about content. Media watchdog Kathryn Montgomery complains that "there's this black-hole category of PG into which just about everything goes."

But here's another way to look at the problem: maybe the fact that so many shows are rated PG means the rating system is in perfect working order. Maybe the real problem is that we parents just aren't willing to watch television with our kids and decide what's appropriate and what's not.

We want someone else to tell us which programs cross the line. But, like obscenity, that line isn't easily defined. In fact, the best definition of obscenity is still Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's of 30 years ago: "I know it when I see it."

That's why parents have to see more of the TV their kids are watching. We are the only program-raters who matter. And most of us are asleep at the remote.

Jim Sollisch is a free-lance writer.

Pub Date: 10/27/97

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