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TV Promos: Not for Children

by Christopher Gildemeister


The Parents Television Council constantly receives letters, telephone calls and e-mail from members of the public who are concerned with the state of television programming today. Most of those who contact the PTC are parents who want to protect their young children from being exposed to graphic violence, sexual content or extreme language. But while they are rightly concerned about the content of TV programs, one of the things most upsetting and offensive to parents is the content of TV commercials – specifically, those commercials that promote movies and other TV programs.


As this column previously discussed, TV audiences are increasingly hungry for TV programming appropriate for the entire family. Advertisers recognize this trend and, wanting their products to have pleasant associations for viewers, are generally seeking family-friendly shows to sponsor. For the same reason, most commercials advertising products only rarely contain content inappropriate for even the youngest viewers. Unfortunately, TV and movies – since so much of what they have to sell contains graphic and offensive content – do not adhere to the same standards, with the result that promos for movies and television programs have contained some of the most egregious content in advertising. Now, however, the movie industry may be forced to revise its advertising practices.


As noted in Broadcasting & Cable magazine, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the national Better Business Bureau has recently joined forces with the Motion Picture Association of America, the group responsible for assigning movie ratings. The goal of this alliance is to more effectively address TV audience complaints about commercials for PG-13 rated movies. Such commercials are often aired during TV shows primarily targeted toward children under age 12. The move was prompted by complaints about the movie Transformers; while the MPAA’s own rating stated that the movie contained "intense sequences of sci-fi action violence" and was rated PG-13, commercials for the movie were shown during children’s TV programming with a TV-Y rating -- which signals that a show is appropriate for children as young as age two.


The new arrangement is expected to reduce the number of PG-13 film ads shown to children, as whenever an advertiser places an ad for a PG-13 movie during a children’s program the MPAA will determine whether the placement violates movie-industry guidelines.  Previously, complaints were handled by the Better Business Bureau, which could only complain to the government; and the courts have consistently struck down government attempts to enforce child-friendly policies as violating the film industry’s rights. But the MPAA is an association in which every major studio voluntarily participates, and each studio agrees to be bound by MPAA findings. Therefore, the MPAA can enforce ratings and sanctions against particular movies and commercials where the BBB and the government were powerless.  It is to be hoped that this new step will significantly reduce the number of ads for violent and extreme PG-13 movies seen by children; but while the movie industry’s commercials are being held to a new standard, the same cannot be said for the TV networks.


“JEERS to Fox for soiling its squeaky clean American Idol with promos for the supersleazy The Moment of Truth…A lot of us watch Idol with our kids! We don’t want to explain this trash to them – and that’s the cold, hard truth.” – “Cheers & Jeers” (TV Guide, April 7, 2008)


The promo mentioned above is only the most recent example in the long history of broadcast television networks choosing to show commercials containing content inappropriate for children during family-friendly programs that huge numbers of children watch. In the example given above, TV Guide also noted that the Moment of Truth promo in question showed a contestant being asked, “Have you ever had physical relations with any of your friends’ wives?” (This being a Fox show, naturally the contestant answered “yes.”)  This promo was then followed by a commercial for the movie Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who – which is rated G! So while product advertisers and even the movie industry are sensitive to the concerns of parents who do not want their children exposed to violent or salacious fare, the TV networks themselves apparently could not care less.


Nor is this practice confined to Fox; all the networks do the same. While there is little enough family-friendly programming safe for young children on television to begin with, it is a source of frustration and sorrow to parents that even when such programs do appear they can be interrupted without notice by sexual dialogue, scenes containing partial nudity or crass language, and the most heinous violence. Such events make a mockery of parental efforts to protect young children. Many parents have made a desperate lunge for a remote control, or even covered their children’s eyes, all to no avail – because it only takes a second or two of inappropriate content to upset and disturb a child, or prompt them to make inquiries of an embarrassed and infuriated parent. TV should not force parents to explain sex or nudity to their children before they are ready to do so; nor should it traumatize children with scenes of shocking violence. Yet all these things happen regularly – even when the parents have chosen a clean and child-safe show to watch. The pleasure of sitting down with one’s children to watch ABC’s family-friendly hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is completely undercut if, in the midst of the program, a commercial featuring a steamy sex scene from Desperate Housewives or Private Practice is shown. Likewise, if the wildly-popular-with-children NBC game show My Dad is Better Than Your Dad is going to be interrupted by ads showing mutilated corpses on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,  who could blame parents if they decided to remove television entirely from their children’s lives? 


The broadcast networks constantly claim that it is solely the job of parents to keep children from harmful content. But even when parents do their best to choose clean and safe TV shows for their children to watch, the children can STILL be exposed to violent, sexual and profane words and images during the commercials…and there is absolutely nothing parents can do to prevent it.  


Nor are the networks’ other great shibboleth, TV content ratings, any solution.  The broadcast networks gleefully point to ratings as a stock solution whenever anyone questions the content shown on TV. (In fact, TV programs are consistently misrated, as the PTC has demonstrated.) However, in the case of inappropriate imagery during commercials, there can be absolutely no question that TV content ratings are totally ineffectual. Programs are rated; commercials are not; and if commercials with offensive content are shown during otherwise clean and family-friendly programs, the TV ratings may actually be increasing the harm in the situation. If parents choose programming for their children on the basis of TV ratings, then they should be able to rest assured that their children will not be exposed to graphic sex, violence or profanity – even during the commercials.


By trusting the networks’ own ratings, parents are doing their best to act responsibly, using the only tools the networks provide. They should be able to presume that programs rated as appropriate for children will contain nothing offensive – including during the commercials. It is the networks themselves who deliberately choose to run promos featuring inappropriate adult content, violence and sex, during family-friendly shows.


Therefore, it is the networks – not advertisers, not parents, not viewers, but ONLY the networks – which bear the responsibility for changing the situation. The broadcast networks should use their power responsibly, by running only ads for other family-friendly programs during the Family Hour…and reserve promos for their more explicit programs for the times such programs are actually shown.


TV promos are solely the networks’ responsibility. When are the networks going to start acting responsibly?


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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