Basic cable: wired for raunch

Posted: Feb 07, 2002 12:00 AM
Asked what is typical basic-cable television programming, the average person will tell you it's old movies, or reruns, or documentaries, or news. Less recognized is that having reached parity with broadcast television, cable is now boasting its own slate of original prime-time entertainment shows -- comedy, drama and reality. And it's far raunchier than the rot one finds on the broadcast networks. Much is being said about the almost-anything-goes programs such as HBO's "Sex and the City" and Showtime's "Queer as Folk," but those are on the "premium" pay channels. What we're talking about here is on basic cable TV, the kind of program any child can watch by simply turning on the tube. Last week, the Parents Television Council released a study analyzing 33 original prime-time basic-cable entertainment series. The results were depressing, to say the least. The overall combined rate of sexual references, uses of coarse language and instances of violence on these shows was 21.7 per hour. Think about it: On average, a child (or even an adult) is hit with disturbing imagery and/or language almost 22 times every hour. How much more offensive is this than broadcast TV? In the PTC's last survey of this nature on the broadcast nets, which looked at fall '99 programming, the average hourly number was 9.8, making cable roughly twice as bad. Some of the cable programs covered in this new study are quite well-known. Comedy Central's "South Park" has become a cause celebre by dint of its overwhelming filth. On the other end of the spectrum you'll find the likes of Nickelodeon's franchise program "Rugrats." Others you probably don't recognize. Does "Undergrads" ring a bell? This MTV (where else?) animated cartoon was the most sex-crazed series in the study. On one episode, a character complains that free Internet porn is "full of ads ... What kind of jackass would try to sell a guy something when he's, you know ... " Or what about Comedy Central's "The Man Show"? This, the study's second-most-sex-driven program, features 2 thirtysomething slobs who confirm every stereotype about men thinking with their genitalia. A typical segment has the fellows at a sperm bank, attempting to find out which has the higher sperm count. The language used is a perfect match for the toilet-bowl plot. Or TNT's "Witchblade"? In one scene from this drama, which wound up second to MTV's notorious "Celebrity Deathmatch" in the violence rankings, a man under the control of a supposed priest who's actually the devil repeatedly smashes his own head into a wall until his skull caves in, his blood splashing the faux priest's face. Or MTV's "The Andy Dick Show"? This sketch-comedy series proves one needn't graduate from the fourth grade to make it into the Hollywood scriptwriting business. The "comedy" often revolves around little more than gutter language with only the most vile swearing (somewhat) bleeped out! These four shows, and many others analyzed in this study, have one thing in common: They are aimed at youngsters, not adults. And it's wholly unnecessary. In fact, the TV Land channel serves to remind that when cable networks decided to go the original-series route, they could have chosen to follow the success some channels had had with reruns of classic shows by developing new programming in that vein. But instead of creating, say, sitcoms with the warmth and spirit of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" or dramas as clever as "The Rockford Files" -- shows
still popular decades later -- cable instead has chosen to flush positive values down the commode. The PTC study's findings would be disturbing even if cable were the obscure viewing option it was a quarter-century ago. These days, more than three-quarters of households receive cable, meaning that its potential audience -- its potential children's audience -- is massive. What can anyone concerned about pornographic messages and graphic images, targeted directly at youngsters via basic cable, do? Forget about complaining to the FCC, which has minimal authority over cable program content (and even if it did have real authority, it has a history of spinelessness). The public should take its case directly to the sponsors, those corporations whose advertising dollars make this values pollution possible. Only when advertisers are held responsible will they think twice about what they underwrite. And only when they accept that helping to deliver this kind of garbage to children is indefensible, will it stop.