WASHINGTON — Once home to wholesome fare such as "The Waltons" and "The Cosby Show," the early evening "family hour" has become just another seedy destination on broadcast TV unfit for kids, according to a study released Wednesday by a watchdog group that could fuel the push for tougher regulation of the public airwaves.
Sex and violence during the early prime-time slot have increased significantly during the last six years, the Parents Television Council found. And although use of foul language has decreased, stronger words are more plentiful and are bleeped out in a way that enables children to easily fill in the blanks.
"There is no longer a family hour," said Timothy Winter, the group's president. "For people who grew up watching "The Cosby Show" or "The Wonderful World of Disney" . . . those days are gone."
For years, broadcasters voluntarily reserved the time slot from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday -- and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday -- for programs suitable for children. But the family hour began changing 25 years ago when the National Assn. of Broadcasters' code of conduct was struck down because of antitrust concerns.
Winter hopes his group's findings will pressure networks to clean up their early evening programs.
"This is the perfect opportunity to look squarely at the facts, step up and say, 'We've gone awry and we should restore it,' " Winter said of the family hour.
The study is one of three conducted this year by the Parents Television Council.
But broadcasters say the family hour is an outdated notion. With children-oriented cable and satellite channels and the ability to watch recorded shows and DVDs, families have many other options during those times. The solution is parental involvement and blocking technologies such as the V-chip, not more regulation, said Jim Dyke, executive director of TV Watch, a coalition formed by broadcasters and other groups opposed to more regulation of television.
"Parents need to ensure that their kids are watching what's appropriate for them -- not for just one hour but all day," Dyke said.
The Parents Television Council's study could help some in Congress as they try to crack down on blood and mayhem on TV. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) is drafting a bill that would allow the Federal Communications Commission to regulate violence on broadcast as well as cable TV.
The FCC now can regulate only indecent content over the public broadcast airwaves, and the agency's near-zero-tolerance policy for some expletives was thrown out by federal judges in June because they found it "arbitrary and capricious." Rockefeller sponsored legislation to try to overcome the court ruling by granting the FCC explicit authority to make "a single word or image" indecent. The bill passed a Senate committee in July.
"No matter how hard they try, parents are faced with a tidal wave of violent and indecent content coming into their homes," Rockefeller said Wednesday. "The industry is not taking seriously the detrimental impact that their programming is having on our children. We have responsibility to take action and force them to clean up their act."
The Parents Television Council studied 180 hours of original programming on six broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, MyNetworkTV and the CW) during three two-week periods in 2006-07. It found that instances of violence had soared 52.4% since a similar study in 2000-01 and that sexual content had increased 22.1%.
Use of foul language dropped by 25.4%, but Winter said the figure was misleading. Although milder words, such as "hell" and "damn," decreased, the use of bleeped words increased 40%. Those words are more offensive and often easy for children to figure out.
"If you hear an 'F' and you hear a 'K,' it doesn't leave much to the imagination," he said. Also, networks have been airing reruns of edgier 10 p.m. shows during the family hour, the study found. Federal indecency regulations are in effect until 10 p.m., and shows usually become racier as the evening progresses.
But that edginess has been creeping into the broadcast schedule earlier, and parents "can no longer count on the family hour to provide a safe haven," the study said.
The group said that there was an average of one instance of violence, profanity or sexual content every 3.5 minutes of noncommercial airtime during the time slot, and that only 10.6% of the 208 episodes reviewed were free of objectionable content. Fox ranked worst with an average of 20.78 instances per hour, according to the study. The CW network was the best, with 9.44 instances per hour.