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Prime-Time TV: Suitable for 14-year-olds?



The December 1st, 2008 issue of TV Guide discussed a recent study by the RAND Corporation, which found that teens with "frequent exposure to TV sexual content" were twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy in the following three years as teens who did not. Discussing the study’s findings, the article quoted Grey’s Anatomy actress Sandra Oh, who said, “I think first and foremost parents should take responsibility.” This sentiment was echoed by Private Practice‘s Audra McDonald, who said, “I think that the main responsibility lies with the parents.” Nor are these opinions confined to actresses is sex-filled soap operas; identical sentiments are expressed by nearly everyone in the entertainment industry when they are confronted with the explicit contents and logical consequences of their own programming choices.


Rather than act responsibly and create programming with healthy messages, the television industry instead claims a “right” to show whatever it pleases – then tells parents to use the V-Chip to screen out programs which they do not want their children to see.


The problem with this approach is that program ratings are assigned by the networks themselves, not by an impartial third party. Naturally the networks have an incentive to misrate their own shows. As a result, the TV ratings system is nearly worthless, as the PTC has shown multiple times.


One particularly egregious demonstration of TV’s unwillingness to assist parents can be found in the ratings assigned to prime-time programs. Although there is a TV-MA rating for use on programs intended only for adult audiences, in practice it is used only by cable networks. The most restrictive rating ever seen on broadcast TV in prime-time is TV-14. According to the broadcast networks – the networks using the airwaves the public owns – every single program they show is appropriate for a 14 year-old.


Such a claim is ludicrous – as may easily be seen by an examination of some recent prime-time programming shown by the broadcast networks.


The November 13th episode of the NBC “comedy” My Name Is Earl revolved around a surprise party thrown for Earl and his faithless wife Joy by Earl’s brother Randy. As a guest list for the party, Randy uses the names in Joy’s address book of “guys I’ve phoned.” Unfortunately, the book is actually the promiscuous Joy’s list of “Guys I’ve Boned,” causing the hapless Joy to be confronted by an endless number of former lovers. This “hilarious” premise predictably leads to dialogue between Joy and her party guests like the following:


Donny:  “You want to get out of here and go have sex? ‘Cause I do. Real bad…I'll put a bag over my head like last time we banged.”


Joy: “Look, the only reason you got lucky that night is ‘cause I had cramps and sometimes that helps.  And no hard feelings, but when you're naked you look like you have kneecaps everywhere.”


Adding to the “humor,” one of the guests is Earl's cousin Blake:


Blake:  “Hey Earl.  You look a little surprised to see me.  You must have just found out I boned your wife…Even though we're four months from Christmas, it looks like I'm going to be spreading Joy!”


But Joy’s party is not the only source of frivolity in the episode. Elsewhere, stripper Catalina, “daytime hooker” Patty, lecherous Darnell and a random fourth individual fear the world is ending, and express their secret wishes to one another:


Catalina:  “I can't believe I'm gonna die a virgin.  I was saving myself for marriage.”


Patty: “I can't believe I'm gonna die without giving it up for free. Just once I should have done that.”


Darnell: “I've always wanted to try a threesome.”


Man: “I've never kissed a man.  And I want to. Bad.”


NBC considered this content appropriate for 14 year-olds, rating the TV-14 DL (the DL designating sexual dialogue and foul language). This program aired at 8:00 p.m. ET, only 7:00 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones, the very beginning of the Family Hour.


Given that the word “Disney” is synonymous with family-friendly entertainment, one would think that the Disney-owned ABC network would be punctilious not only in the content of its programs, but also in rating those programs appropriately. Yet ABC not only runs the sex-soaked program Desperate Housewives in prime time; not only considers it suitable for 14-year-olds by rating it TV-14; but this season has even incorporated an extended storyline featuring statutory rape. Not that this is the first time; in an earlier season, Desperate Housewives had a storyline about Gabrielle having sex with her teenage gardener. This year, with the increasing popularity of “cougar” storylines on TV (in current parlance, a “cougar” is an older woman who enjoys sex with younger men), -- or perhaps merely betokening a bankruptcy of creativity -- the network has returned to the same poisoned well.


As revealed on the November 16th episode (9:00 p.m. ET), Lynette’s 16 year-old son Porter has been having sex with his best friend’s mother Anne, who is pregnant from the affair, as she reveals in a “humorous” moment during which she talks to Lynette, with Anne’s husband Warren walking in on the conversation:


Lynette: “Are you really pregnant?”


Anne: “Yes. A couple months back, Warren and I, we fought. I was pretty banged up and Porter came by looking for Kirby and he was so kind and gentle…”


Lynette: “Don't. Don't try to justify this. This is sick. You are sick!”


Anne: “Your son loves me. And I love him. And you know what, I'm glad I'm having Porter's baby.”


Warren: “Damn. Not exactly what a husband wants to hear coming in the door. I suppose dinner's not ready either.”


Not only is this content apparently appropriate for 14 year-olds, the episode was not even labeled with an “S” denoting sexual content, or a “D” for sexual dialogue. And making this storyline even more repugnant is the fact that, before this season’s “jump” five years ahead in the story, viewers were accustomed to seeing Porter as a cute little boy. Now he’s having sex with a woman old enough to be his mother. Just typical TV fare appropriate for teens, according to Disney.


While ABC’s blasé attitude towards sexual content is something of a shock given their ownership by Disney, it comes as no surprise that Fox considers even the most depraved content acceptable for a mass audience of teens. And what would that “depraved” content be? How about the implication of incest between a father and his 18-year-old daughter?


On the 9:30 p.m. ET, November 16th episode  of the animated emetic from the poisoned pen of American Dad creator Seth MacFarlane, sex-crazed high-school girl Hayley falls in love with Bill, a man who looks identical to her own father Stan.  Allegedly hilarious hijinks ensue when Stan dates his own daughter in an effort to make her break up with Bill. As the two drive off on a date Hayley sings:


Hayley:  “We're finally going all the way!  Doin' it, doin it.  D-D-doin' it.  Should we break for lunch?  Nope. Let's keep doin' it.  Doin' it.  Someone's at the door.  I don't care, we're doin' it, doin' it.  Wanna put on our hiking boots?  Yeah, we'll wear 'em while we're doin' it, doin' it!”


Later, Stan, pretending to be Bill attempts to repulse Hayley by suggesting a threesome with the waitress at the diner where they stopped for lunch:


Stan: “Check out that waitress.  She is hot…I'm checking her out. Blatantly. If you wanna dump me, do it sitting down so you don't block my view of her ass.  I'd like to take her back to our room and then have sex with her on your clothes.”


Hayley: “Let's asks her.”


Stan: “What?”


Hayley: “Yeah, yeah!  You can do her, then I can do you.  Then I'll take aturn with her while you watch…I'm gonna go to the bathroom and take off my underwear. Then you put our room key into it and give them to her.”


While the rating for this episode did contain descriptors indicating the presence of sexual dialogue, sexual activity, foul language and violence, overall it was still listed as being acceptable for 14 year-olds.


But the most obvious flaw in the TV ratings system comes in its treatment of theatrical films. While the TV networks are the sole (mis)raters of their own products, movies are rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Thus, by the time they play on television, movies have already been rated. So it is a surprise to see TV (cable and broadcast) declaring movies appropriate for 14 year-olds…when those very same movies were rated “R” – restricting admission to those below age 18 only if accompanied by an adult – when shown in theaters.


CBS did this most recently on November 15th with its 8:00 p.m. ET (7:00 p.m. in the Midwest, remember) showing of the movie Wedding Crashers. The entire premise of the film is that two men “crash” weddings, where they hope to find “tons and tons of gorgeous ladies that are so aroused by the prospect of marriage that they're going to throw inhibition to the wind" – and have sex with the men, of course.


This prime-time broadcast showing of the movie was supposedly “edited for television.” While some explicit nudity and foul language may have been removed, what remained was still more intense than many parents would consider appropriate for their young teens. Shown are montages of scantily-clad women flopping back onto beds with the men Jeremy and John climbing on top of them; Gloria straddling Jeremy on the toilet, with his pants around his ankles; Gloria fondling Jeremy through his pants under the table as they eat dinner with her parents; Gloria tying Jeremy to her bed prior to sex; Gloria’s brother Todd lying atop Jeremy and attempting to seduce him; and a final example of Gloria’s “devotion” to Jeremy:


Gloria: "Oh, Jeremy!  I'm so ready to take our relationship to the next level, too!  Do you want to watch me with another girl?  What about those Brazilian twins we met at the ball game?"


Jeremy: "I was thinking more along the lines of an engagement.  But that sounds, that's unbelievable.  Those Brazilian twins were very nice."


All of the foregoing were examples from only one program on each network on prime time broadcast TV, and all occurred less than one week apart. Multiply that by the number of shows on broadcast TV; by the number of weeks in a year; then consider how much television teenagers and children watch; and then realize that this is the kind of content the networks think is appropriate for 14 year-olds. And then consider: the networks say that it is parents fault if children and teens have misguided views concerning sexuality or appropriate behavior.


The entertainment industry’s hypocrisy knows no bounds. Only when programs are transparently rated by an organization not affiliated with or paid by the networks themselves will the ratings system truly be effective. Until that time, the networks should make a more diligent effort at accurately rating their programs…and realizing that not everything on TV is appropriate for 14 year-olds would be a good place to start.

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


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