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Does Morals Question Go Past Politics? : Commentary: When Sen. Bob Dole and Dan Quayle attack Hollywood for a lack of values, their motives are questioned. But there's no denying the issues concern the general public.


When Dan Quayle attacked TV's "Murphy Brown" in 1992 because the lead character was having a baby out of wedlock, Hollywood's reaction was one of mockery and anger.

Quayle, then the vice president, was even roasted on the Emmy Awards show in an open display of hostility.

When Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole attacked sex and violence in TV, movies and music last week, there was another strong reaction of anger, and a touch of mockery, from many in the show business world.

Dole, after all, is a contender for the GOP presidential nomination, and the question of his political motivation made him a target himself.

So was it just the usual grandstanding on sex and violence by national politicians who know there's always a headline in blasting Hollywood?

Even if that's so, some of the issues raised do concern a great many people in the television industry, for example, and numerous viewers as well.

If, for instance, those same issues had been raised as dramatically and explosively by figures that the widely liberal Hollywood community sympathized with, the reaction might have been much more restrained.

President Clinton and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), after all, have expressed their displeasure with the violence in show business productions, and the response, if not unanimous, was certainly less volatile.

Dole, whose wide-ranging criticism was taken much more seriously in Hollywood than Quayle's matchup against "Murphy Brown," did not help his case by admitting he had not seen or heard some of the works and entertainers he lambasted.

Still, even among some who may have opposed Quayle and are at odds with Dole, the big questions remain: What about the issues raised? Haven't many viewers in the TV audience voiced the same criticism simply out of personal concern and not for political gain?

Leveled at first by withering humor that depicted him as a public joke, Quayle, with his comments about "Murphy Brown," nonetheless helped heighten national debate on an important ongoing matter--family values and where they stand in a changing America.

While he is still a symbol of extreme conservatism to many in Hollywood, some moderate voices acknowledged concern over values, and others even said he was right. As with Dole, the point that wouldn't go away was: What if someone with less of a clearly political agenda--and more informed about his or her targets--walloped Hollywood on several of the same points?

For years now, TV has been criticized--and rightly so--by many viewers for lowering public standards with its increasingly racy and tasteless material. You could also argue that network TV's truly major crime is the numbing stupidity and shallowness of most of its shows.

On Madison Avenue, the story line subjects that have worried sponsors more than other topics have been abortion and homosexuality. But year in and year out, almost since TV was invented, it seems, the two issues that have been most on the minds of dissatisfied viewers and politicians seeking to touch the public nerve are sex and violence.

At the moment, sexy material--or at least what TV regards as sexy, although many would consider it juvenile--is clearly considered a priority at the networks, even in the early prime-time hours once reserved for more innocent family viewing.

This became clear last season when the 8 p.m. viewing hour suddenly started to fill up rather heavily with risque stuff. And one of the main messages of the network schedules for next season is the continued emphasis on this trend.

Family shows such as "Full House" and "Me and the Boys" were dumped. And 8 p.m. network shows come fall will include the racy "Martin," "Living Single," "Mad About You," "Melrose Place" and "Beverly Hills, 90210," along with such newly rescheduled, more adult--and often frank--series as "Roseanne."

How has TV changed since, say, 10 years ago? One barometer is to check out the 8 p.m. series that launched prime time in the 1985-86 season:

There were some successful turkeys--like "The A-Team" and "Knight Rider"--but the other family-oriented attempts included "The Cosby Show," "Magnum, P.I.," "Webster," a new version of "The Twilight Zone," "Highway to Heaven," "Murder, She Wrote" and Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories," an ambitious series even though it failed to generate heavy viewer interest.

None of these series--or other 8 p.m. entries of that season such as "MacGyver," "Hardcastle & McCormick," "Who's the Boss?" and "The Fall Guy"--came anywhere close overall to the raciness of the current, early-hour network schedules.

No doubt an ambitious politician could find something to pick on even in that innocuous group of TV shows. And no doubt there were viewers who thought that some of those series were too spicy. But the list speaks for itself: No comparison with today.

Let's go back another 10 years, to some of the 8 p.m. shows that opened the 1975-76 prime-time network lineups:

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