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Howard Rosenberg / TELEVISION

Senators Set in Their Viewing

May 29, 2000|Howard Rosenberg

The June issue of Glamour magazine has national affairs editor David France writing about a word association game he played in New York City with campaigning Texas Gov. George W. Bush. France reports the game took a "dark turn" when Bush, a lock for the GOP presidential nomination, was asked to respond to "Sex and the City," an urbane, ribald comedy series that chronicles the libidinous adventures of four single females in New York City.

"The face of the man who would be president, blistered in purple fury," France writes. "He turned toward me for the first time, only to narrow his eyes and glower. He was giving me the politician's equivalent of a pro wrestling belly-butt!"

Why in the world had Bush "snapped," France wondered, given that he had been clueless about "Sex and the City" and had to be informed by an aide that the target of his wrath was "an HBO television show?" Was it hearing "sex" mentioned that set him off? In retrospect, France speculates that Bush thought he was being asked to comment on sexual activity in New York.

In any case, this got me to thinking about four U.S. senators who last week gave TV a belly-butt in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission assailing the "rapidly declining standards of broadcast television" through a "rising tide of glorified violence and increasingly explicit sexual content."

The senators say they are concerned primarily about TV seen by the nation's children, and their sincerity is not at issue. Nor is that some Americans find much of television as revolting as they do and agree with them that broadcasters should should be strongly nudged by the Feds to do more in the public interest instead of counting their profits and treating the publicly owned airwaves as their private golden goose.

Putting aside for the moment whether the senators' charges are justified, however, I wondered why they were not explicit about the non-cable television they were indicting so broadly.

Although listing as sources recent studies by the Center on Media and Public Affairs, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Parents Television Council, their five-page report mentions no show titles or specifics about the "rising tide" beyond noting the mention of Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210" in a New York Times article about TV's emphasis on teenage sex.

Why so vague?

Was it possible that they had gathered no empirical evidence of their own, and were working entirely from surveys and viewing TV through the eyes of their staffs and others? Was it possible that, like Bush in New York, they hadn't seen what they were attacking? And if so, shouldn't they have, given their unique influence as senators and the ferocity of their protests in lobbying the FCC to "reexamine the public interest standard and the license renewal process" under which broadcasters operate?

Is this the way things are meant to operate in the nation's great pantheon of lawmakers?

Phoning the foursome on this topic, I got callbacks from Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). An aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) promised to check his schedule, but never got back to me. An aide to Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) said the veteran senator was too busy to comment on the strongly worded plea for reform he had signed. No doubt he was tied up in research, watching more of those squalid shows.

Shortly before rushing off to participate in a Senate vote, Brownback said on the phone that the PTC survey "quantifies what everybody sees." What he sees?

"I've seen some of the World Wrestling Federation [UPN's 'WWF Smackdown!']," he said. "I will watch some of Sunday evening [TV]. I've seen clips that we pulled from some [offending] shows." Could he be specific?

"I'm not remembering the shows that the clips were out of," he said.

Brownback said the TV his children watch on Friday nights is "just replete" with "sexually suggestive content." He couldn't recall the names of those shows, either, but added: "I'm seeing this as a parent sitting there watching in disgust. The message given to my children is that sex is recreational, it's fun, it's without consequence."

Then why allow his children to watch, and why, if he's so disgusted, does he watch with them? "We don't regularly," he said. "I'll just sit there till things get to a certain point."

Along with McCain, meanwhile, Lieberman has been among the Senate's most vociferous critics of TV. Yet he too is an infrequent viewer. "There's only so much I watch myself," he said from a cell phone in his car.

As one of the nation's most influential, most quoted TV critics, so to speak, shouldn't he more closely monitor the medium he consistently faults?

Lieberman didn't sound pleased by the tone of the question: "Forgive me," he said, "I'm busy! I flip the dials. I read some of the reports on content."

Just the same, maybe these guys should see for themselves if they're going to be talking the talk.

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