Networks, heal thyselves

Posted: Jan 11, 2001 12:00 AM
"Dateline NBC" has a reputation, often deserved, for preferring fluff to substance. On Jan. 2, however, the popular newsmagazine made amends for its obsession with the likes of JonBenet Ramsey by airing a segment concerning contemporary teenagers' sexual attitudes and behavior. Just as you pray most children aren't watching what's on television generally, this was one of those rare times you wish all their parents were tuned in. The report was especially compelling because of its exploration of the entertainment media's effect on how teens view sex. It began by contrasting old-fashioned portrayals (from the 1950s, I'm guessing) of dating and courtship with brief clips from the megaraunchy 1999 movie "American Pie," in the last of which a teenage girl straddles a teenage boy and unzips his pants. Correspondent Keith Morrison tells us that "even though there are some studies that question the media's influence, (the four teens 'Dateline' interviewed for the story) feel ... otherwise ... They feel (that) everywhere they turn -- movies, TV, music, the Internet -- there (sex) is." After another video snippet, this one of an uncharacteristically fully clothed Britney Spears singing, "I'm not that innocent," Morrison remarks, "American morals may frown on teenage sex, but America's commercial media seem to encourage it." They "seem" to encourage it about as much as Tiger Woods seems to be a good golfer. One 15-year-old boy comments, "I don't think parents get the fact that they're up against a whole army. It's like your parents at home (are) saying ... this is what you should do, I'm caring for you, I'm thinking about you ... (but) then you have every person in the media saying sex is OK and you should do it." As a result of this cultural bombardment and other factors, these days, teens tend to think of sex as "just for fun" and "recreation," in the words of another interviewee, also a 15-year-old boy. A major talking head in the report is Dr. Drew Pinsky, a physician and an expert on addictions who sounds awfully sensible at times, such as when he calls the current state of teen sexuality "disturb(ing) ... a mess." He further claims his "goal (is) to try to find ways to use media ... to move the culture, particularly of young people, in a healthier direction." Except in using the media, Pinsky clearly has been part of the problem. He co-hosts the syndicated radio call-in program "Loveline," a version of which had a four-year run on MTV. "Loveline" has little to do with love, and everything to do with sex, so the primary function of Pinsky's co-host, comedian Adam Carolla, is to make smirky, smutty jokes about the topics under discussion. The show's goal was to titillate those teen hormones at MTV, nothing more. Pinsky realizes, as he tells Morrison, that "programs like ('Loveline') have great potential to do harm ... There's a mantra that runs in my head, which is, 'Do no harm, do no harm, do no harm.' Make sure (that) when each call is done, something worthwhile comes out of this." This, the good doctor knows full well, is bunk, the most cynical of attempts to justify his sleaze. It's like the World Wrestling Federation defending its raunch as wonderful "family entertainment" because they've managed to hook an entire generation of children on their garbage. MTV canceled "Loveline," but programming on the network -- whose audience is, of course, heavily teenaged and pre-teen -- has grown considerably more sexual in the past few years. Last May, Syracuse University television scholar Robert Thompson told the online magazine Salon that MTV is "defined by being cutting-edge and hip. And as other cable networks have caught up (sexually), there's this sense that there has to be an escalation to keep these audiences there." And if children's values are warped in the process -- well, sure, that's important, but not as important as the bottom line for MTV's owner, the media conglomerate Viacom, sponsor of Howard Stern and other "do no harm" shows. What else are teens watching on television? Or, put another way, what TV shows are influencing them? The WB network specializes in high-teen-appeal series, such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dawson's Creek" and "Felicity" -- none a friend to traditional sexual morality. NBC, which airs "Dateline," doesn't have any teen series as such, but does have plenty of shows attracting young viewers, and only one show on the whole network -- "Mysterious Ways," which NBC shares with Pax TV -- is family-friendly. Morrison asks his panel of teens: "If adults ... knew what was really going on (sexually) in the middle schools and early high-school years, what would they think?" A 14-year-old girl replies, "I think that they would do home schooling." The correlation to TV is that they'd disallow the viewing of standard television fare. These youngsters are being as honest as their parents, and the entertainment industry are irresponsible.