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Two Coasts, Many Views on Television's Influence

The industry: Bicoastal panel agrees the media shape children's minds and morals but differs on how to solve the problem.


It pretty much came down to "Dragnet" vs. "NYPD Blue."

Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, defended the moral lessons and downplayed the sometimes steamy visuals of the latter, while Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, waxed nostalgically about the straight-arrow style and on-screen propriety of the former.

"I think 'NYPD Blue' is the finest-crafted show on television," Valenti said. "It's a morality play about finding criminals and bringing them to justice. It's a show I would like to have my children watch."

" 'Dragnet' also showed crime didn't pay, but it was able to do so without frontal nudity," Reed countered.

That was about as heated as the debate went Monday. For the most part, whether they were Hollywood types, Washington politicos or representatives of the religious right, all those participating on a bicoastal panel sponsored by Women of Washington Inc. agreed that the entertainment industry plays a large part in shaping the minds and morals of America's children and that many parents feel powerless to change the situation.

The point of divergence focused on where responsibility lies in redirecting that influence.

The discussion was held simultaneously before audiences in Los Angeles and Washington. Besides Valenti and Reed, panelists included Winifred White Neisser, vice president of movies and miniseries at Columbia-TriStar Pictures, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).

"I do think we have a problem, but I don't think it's focused in the right direction," said Valenti, whose organization administers ratings for the film industry and is developing a similar system for television programs.

Valenti emphasized the importance of the "3 pillars"--parents, church and school--in child-rearing.

"No law, no electronic device is going to take the place of the parent, school and church," said Valenti, speaking in Los Angeles. "There must be some parental guidance, some tough love telling children what they can and can't watch."

In contrast, Lieberman, who co-sponsored the legislation to put V-chips in television sets that will help parents control what their youngsters watch, said the electronic media have surpassed the family, schools and religion in their power over children. Consequently, Lieberman, speaking from Washington, urged the gatherings in both cities to exert pressure on the entertainment industry for improved programming and more family fare.

"We have to discipline the industry as well," said Lieberman. "The electronic entertainment culture is so powerful and so attractive that it is, in fact, undermining and eating away at these '3 pillars.' We have to ask the entertainment industry to draw some lines and exercise some responsibility."

The panelists bandied about oft-quoted statistics. Lieberman spoke of the 21 hours of television that the average child watches weekly and the 100,000 acts of televised violence he will see by the time he finishes elementary school; while Reed told the audience that, by 18, the average child will have listened to 21,000 hours of radio and watched 18,000 hours of television, but only spent 3,000 hours interacting with parents.

"This causes parents to feel they've lost control of the minds and hearts of their children," said Reed, speaking from Washington.

Valenti added to the barrage of statistical data: Of the 2,000 hours of television programming available daily, there are indeed some shows that are "tawdry, meretricious and even a bit unwholesome," in his view, but also some that are worthwhile.

He remarked pointedly that if he were a politician, he, too, would be pointing the finger at television and movies because they are an easy, convenient target. Instead, he defended television, asserting that its content has improved.

"I think it's wrong to indict all the television industry for a few which go beyond the bounds," Valenti said. "Television is more barren of violence than it has been in the last 15 years."

Neisser, who formerly developed television movies for NBC, urged parents to teach children at an early age to watch television critically.

"There are more entertainment choices than ever out there," said Neisser, speaking from Los Angeles. "Someone has to help children navigate and make those choices. The V-chip is a part of that road map, but it's only a part. . . . If the child doesn't have the self-confidence and sense of self to question what they're seeing, I don't know how the child will find its way."

Lieberman agreed that the solution is multifaceted.

"The V-chip is about empowerment; it is not the ultimate answer," the senator said.

Particular targets of all the panelists were daytime talk shows, tabloid-style news programs, violent Saturday morning cartoons and, to a lesser extent, prime-time programming.

" 'Donahue' just went off the air, which I think is a step in the right direction," Lieberman said, prompting a handful of boos and hisses from the Los Angeles audience.

He said his constituents continually ask him to lobby for more wholesome entertainment.

"I got into this not as a politician but as a parent watching television," said Lieberman, a father of four. "My criticism of television is [meant as] loving criticism. I am a child of the television age and that's why I'm so disappointed. A lot of television is wonderful, but we need more of that. . . . I'd like to sit down with my daughter and watch television the way I used to watch it with my mom and dad."

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