How did TV get so foul?

Citizens concerned about an increasingly sexualized society rightly want to first clean up the most toxic cultural polluters, such as the Internet and sexually oriented businesses. Yet, the most common (and largely unrecognized) promoter of pornographic sexuality is television. Graphic TV programs serve as many children’s first introduction to harmful sexuality, in turn desensitizing them to the messages common to pornography: that men are sex-crazed animals, illicit sex is the most enjoyable and that women’s worth is only found in their sexual availability.

How did it get this way?
Sadly, very few in society want to take responsibility for the state of television today. Broadcasters claim that parents are responsible for protecting their children. Parents want more government intervention, and regulatory bodies are conducting virtually no oversight, leaving the television industry to police itself. In reality, changing the TV landscape requires parental protections, corporate responsibility and consistent federal oversight.

While some parents set and enforce limits on their children’s television exposure, many do not. The Kaiser Family Foundation found in 2009 that only 46 percent of young people said they had rules about which shows they could watch, and a mere 28 percent said they had time restrictions. Further, among all 8- to 18-year-olds, 71 percent have a TV set in their bedroom, half have cable or satellite TV in their room and one in four report access to premium networks in the bedroom, potentially exposing them to highly graphic and deviant sexual content.

Sadder than these numbers is the fact that TV use in the bedroom has increased significantly in the past decade, when content has also grown increasingly sexualized. Clearly, parents need to take a more active and aggressive role in protecting their children from harmful television.

When not pushing their responsibility onto parents, the broadcast industry likes to promote its straw-man solution—the V-chip. Every TV made after 2000 is required to carry a V-chip, which is designed to filter content through the use of age ratings and content descriptors. The problem is that the broadcasters rate their own TV programs. Numerous studies have found this self-policing to be terribly inconsistent or even nonexistent, making the V-chip a miserable failure. One study found that 75 percent of shows with sexualized underage female characters in 2010 did not have an “S” descriptor to warn parents about the sexual content.

At best, the V-chip filters out a minimum of offensive content. At worst, it provides the illusion of protection while allowing a great deal of disturbing content to pass through to children even when parents have proactively tried to block it.

The reluctance of the broadcast industry to reform is particularly disturbing since new research continues to show the harm of sexualized and violent content to children. Parents must always serve as the first line of defense, but they cannot be expected to bear the responsibility reserved for the entertainment industry.

Government oversight
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for enforcing broadcast decency laws. Federal law prohibits the broadcasting of obscene material at any time of day and restricts indecent and profane broadcasts to the hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., or outside the “safe harbor” hours when children are most likely to be exposed.

The FCC’s record of enforcement is poor, but it has statutory authority to revoke a station license, impose a fine, or issue a warning.

Research indicates that young people are highly susceptible to sexualized messages on TV, even into their mid-20s. Studies have found that youth exposed to the highest levels of sexual content demonstrate significant changes in both attitudes and behaviors.  Other research finds that televised sexualized content is increasingly graphic, frequent and deviant. The state of television will only get worse unless something is done to reverse a decades-long march into the gutter.

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Copyright © 2013, Daniel Weiss. All rights reserved. Used with permission.