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An Antidote to Violence: Turn Off the TV

July 11, 1993|DIANNE KLEIN

The other day I was explaining to my 6-year-old about the days before color TV, only she didn't quite understand. How could everything be in black and white? My daughter knows that's not real.

If those of my generation were the first true children of TV, the ones who had no trouble believing in a talking horse or a mother who was a car, then my daughter's is that of reality television, enhanced.

It's real life, but it's more. It's faster, looser, more vivid and raw. It's excitement ratcheted up so high that it dulls.

Coyness, for example, is too subtle for modern TV. So the sex on the tube suffocates now. And the violence? It's casual and bloody and you know the rest. The question that today's children are forever asking is, "Yawn. What's next?'

During the past several weeks, Congress has been hearing about this a lot. Network television executives were scolded during hearings held to decide what should be done. The consensus about just what that should be: Something , of course.

The execs said that they shared the honorable congresspersons' concerns, but this time, they sounded scared. They pleaded against regulation (censorship!) and promised to come up with something "voluntary" on their own.

And now they have, in a sense.

A limited compromise agreement has been announced, a warning system to alert parents to mayhem coming up. It's a test, for two years. And the networks will determine on which shows the warning will run. (So far the nets say none of their current series is a candidate for a violence alert.)

The exact wording of the advisory, which will be the same on Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS, with most of cable and syndication left out, is generic bland: Due to some violent content, parental discretion advised.

Perhaps that should be changed to something like this: The surgeon general has determined that the following program will warp children's minds.

But I doubt that we'll ever see such words on the screen. Because the new violence advisory, the latest in a series of "warnings" that bombard us every day, is the easy way out. It's a way, once again, of placing the onus on us. It's akin to telling consumers that they can grow their own vegetables if they don't want to buy those sprayed with pesticides at the store.

It sounds to me like the advisory compromise could have been devised by corporate lawyers protecting their clients' rears. "Hey, the guy can't sue us if Johnny starts his own crime spree after watching a Movie of the Week. We told them these docudramas are dangerous stuff."

(Then again, a warning is something , which is preferable to zilch. And the American public is getting used to settling for less.)

Let's play earnest for a minute. Perhaps in the long term, a violence advisory will do some good. Maybe if ratings drop for violent TV, or if advertisers desert, television programmers will take the clue and less of the stuff will be produced. I am familiar with this line of logic. "Trickle down," the theory is called. But I've never seen it work.

Which should give us pause. Because this isn't some pseudo-science like economics that only the gurus understand, this is TV, the real "great communicator" for better or for worse.

Just to give you an idea: The other day, I stumbled upon a spontaneous experiment with children and the power of TV. The guinea pigs, my daughter and her 10-year-old cousin--who had just met for the first time the day before--were unaware that they were being observed. They were just watching TV in our hotel room.

The 10-year-old, especially, seemed entranced. A lame movie about two teen-age boys who assume each other's identity--one's a nerdy genius and the other's a thuggish ex-con--actually competed with the swimming pool for the fun activity of the day. And for too long, the TV was ahead. So I turned it off.

Later I got the word that I had introduced a forbidden fruit. I didn't know that the 10-year-old wasn't allowed to watch television in her own home. My own daughter, on the hand, has seen enough to dream of appearing on a Nickelodeon game show.

Then I heard about evenings in the 10-year-old's Denver home: Dad picks on his guitar and mother and daughter read. It sounded so . . . unreal.

Nonetheless, I described the scenario to my 6-year-old, as in: See? Your big cousin's got better things to do with her time.

And, you know, a funny thing happened the other night in our home. I was reading a magazine, my daughter was drawing and the television blared. My husband, who had left the room, had turned it on.

"Mom, let's turn the television off!" says my daughter. "That way it will be perfect for me to draw."


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