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There's a Moral to This

The Times Poll finds that most Americans say TV has too much sex and violence, and many question the industry's values. So what's an exec to do?

September 21, 1997|Brian Lowry, and Jane Hall and Greg Braxton | Brian Lowry, Jane Hall and Greg Braxton are Times staff writers

Charlotte Ann Wiles, a 60-year-old receptionist in Frederick, Md., insists that she's not a prude and admits that she even enjoys watching "some trash" on television now and again.

Still, Wiles said, she occasionally finds herself embarrassed viewing television with her teenage grandchildren, hearing phrases she never did a few years ago.

"The first time they said 'damn' on television they warned the world," she recalled, complaining that there's "no mystery anymore" in today's programming.

"I think they're getting away with too much--the sexuality, the language," Wiles said. "I'm not a Puritan . . . [but] they're just getting more explicit all the time."

To quote a popular movie slogan, she is not alone. A Los Angeles Times Poll of 1,258 adults across the United States conducted this month, in fact, concluded that most people think there's too much sex and violence on television and that TV is worse than a decade ago and should be doing more to clean up its act.

Seemingly most damaging for a mass-entertainment business, seven in 10 of those polled said people who work in the industry don't share their values.

"I feel like the morals of our country are disintegrating, and television has a lot to do with that," said poll respondent Patricia Moak, 48, an elementary school teacher in Seattle.

The results weren't entirely grim for TV executives and producers. The industry received generally high marks for its children's programming, and even with misgivings about levels of sex and violence, most people said they prefer that the industry police itself rather than having the federal government seek to do so.

In addition, only a small percentage of those who believe there is more sex and violence now than a decade ago primarily blame producers for what they see as that lowering of standards, more often citing changing audience tastes and a general decline in morality. Yet despite such factors, nearly six in 10 said the industry should resist providing more explicit programming, even if people want to see it.

The public's ambivalence regarding television, as reflected in those numbers, which have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, gave both the entertainment industry and its critics positions to which they could cling, though many chose to question the ability of any poll to gather an honest assessment of the way people view television.

Indeed, a fair percentage of those contacted within the television business dis- pute the underlying notion that they are out of step with the public, insisting that the image of disengaged media moguls contradicts reality for those in the trenches.

"The majority of [people in Hollywood] are involved with nuclear families with kids in school and I think are very plugged in to the concerns of most Americans," said Dick Wolf, producer of NBC's Emmy Award-winning drama "Law & Order."

"The public has had virtually no contact with the people who make the decisions at the studios and, most importantly, at the network. If they did, I think they would realize that the values that are held by the executives in this town are consistent with America at large," said Sandy Grushow, president of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces such shows as "The X-Files" and "The Simpsons." "There is no one in a major position in Hollywood who wouldn't put their family first."

"I've never met anybody who wants to tear down American culture with what we do," said producer Chuck Lorre, the creator of "Grace Under Fire" and "Cybill."

Kay Koplovitz, chairman of the USA Networks, wasn't surprised to hear that the response proved overwhelmingly negative on the question of values; however, the executive was reluctant to read those findings as a blanket denunciation, suggesting instead that feeling at odds with the industry on even one strongly held belief can foster such a perception.

"If you thought the issue [of homosexuality] undertaken by 'Ellen' was different from the values you held, with all the publicity about it, you might feel that way," she said.

Another TV producer, speaking on condition of anonymity, attributed at least part of the image problem to celebrities who align themselves with eccentric causes--such as actor Woody Harrelson championing the use of hemp--that don't reflect most people's daily concerns. "They've forgotten that they serve at the pleasure of the people," he said.

That said, industry officials took solace in the fact that The Times Poll results seem to underscore one of their contentions: that people may wish to see television content curbed but want the industry to act on its own, not under the influence of government.

Asked about the federal government's role in this arena, only a quarter of poll respondents said the government should be more involved in policing television content, while a third felt it should be less involved.

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