'Family hour' growing dysfunctional

Study: Prime time programs becoming raunchier, more violent

— Childhood innocence and television are an increasingly uneasy mix, according to a study released Wednesday.

Youngsters watching television during the so-called family hour � 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. CDT � last season were exposed to bawdier humor and more coarse language and violence than in 1999, according to the Parents Television Council.

"I don't think enough parents realize just how awful it's become," L. Brent Bozell III, president of the conservative watchdog group. "Some of the worst programming is now being put on during that hour and it's being directed deliberately at children."

Bozell noted that the study looked at broadcast television, "not late-night, obscure cable."

The group studied 200 hours of programming airing in 2000-01 on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, WB and UPN during the first hour of prime time.

More than 10 million children, on average, are watching television during that hour, according to Nielsen Media Research figures cited by the study.

Overall, coarse language was up 78 percent to 2.6 instances an hour compared to 1999, the PTC study said. If milder curse words such as "damn" were included in the tally, the per-hour rate of foul language usage would reach 6.1, Bozell said.

Violence rose 70 percent to 2.8 occurrences per hour, the study found. Fifteen percent of those depictions involved a gun.

Although sexual material dipped 17 percent, to a per-hour average of 3.1 instances, it was rawer than in the past, the PTC said.

Oral sex, homosexuality, pornography, masturbation and "kinky practices" that a generation ago may not even have been discussed on late-evening series were mentioned on family hour shows, the study said.

Homosexuality was included in the list simply because it reflected another aspect of sexuality on TV, Bozell said.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, however, questioned lumping sexual orientation with overt sex acts. The group believes "such odd and far-fetched comparisons are inaccurate and offensive," GLAAD spokesman Scott Seomin said .

The study found UPN was the worst offender among the networks with a combined per-hour average of 18.1 instances of sex, violence or crude language, while NBC was second with 9.1 instances. The other network figures: Fox, 7.8; WB, 7.5; ABC 6.7 and CBS, 3.2.

WWF vulgarity

The study � the group's fifth analysis of program content during the early prime-time hour � said UPN "lapped the field" in violence, which Bozell attributed to broadcasts of the World Wrestling Federation's "WWF Smackdown!"

"At UPN, we strongly believe in the viewers' right to make an informed choice about what they watch, which is why we voluntarily and clearly label every UPN program with a content rating," the network said in response to the study.

Others shows singled out for violence were WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and UPN's "Seven Days." Overt sexual banter was cited on shows including ABC's "Two Guys and a Girl" and NBC's "DAG."

The council has repeatedly condemned "WWF Smackdown!" as among TV's most violent and vulgar shows and called on sponsors to withdraw support. The federation, in return, sued the PTC, claiming threats and lies were used to drive advertisers away.

Bozell, who denies the lawsuit's claims, is unrepentant about pressuring advertisers and broadcasters.

"It's not going to change until the sponsors say 'I'm not going to sully my name being involved in what everybody knows is trash,"' Bozell said.

Calls for change

Children Now, a nonpartisan children's advocacy group based in Oakland, echoed the PTC's call for more network responsibility.

"Prime-time programmers really do appear to have forgotten children are part of the viewing audience," said Patti Miller, director of the children's and media program for Children Now.

Broadcasters have a public interest obligation to consider the messages they send children, she said. For instance, Miller said, another study that showed less than 10 percent of all TV shows include a mention of the risks or responsibilities of sex.

It's a "Friends," syndrome, said Bozell, referring to the popular 7 p.m. CDT Thursday NBC sitcom that is known for its racy story lines. "Everybody jumps from one bed to the next. And life is good."

Content has deteriorated since the ratings system was implemented in 1997, Bozell contends: It gave networks free rein to push the TV envelop as long as they put the right stamp on it.

Increased competition from unfettered cable channels also has made broadcast networks bolder, said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

"Whether or not it's exclusively a bad thing is open for debate," Thompson said. "A lot of these people would be very much happier if we went back to the days of 'Ozzie and Harriet,' when there was not only no premarital sex, there was no marital sex. It was a grand illusion."

Thompson sees no problem with networks showing more sensitivity to young viewers as opposed to a government-enforced family hour, which the courts have already ruled out.

Bozell said voluntary change is what he hopes for.

"The airwaves are owned by the public, not Hollywood. Hollywood is a guest in the living room," Bozell said. "In some quarters, it's abusing this privilege."

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