Of Desperate Housewives and Desperate Regulators

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Get ready for another impassioned censorship crusade by the"let's-censor-television-to-protect-the-children" crowd. The latestNielsen television ratings are out and they reveal that in additionto being the most popular show among adults, ABC's smash-hitDesperate Housewives is also the most popularbroadcast-network television show with kids aged 9-12.

No doubt, the relentless censorship advocates at the ParentsTelevision Council (PTC) are already firing up the engines at theirautomated complaint factory to bombard Federal CommunicationsCommission (FCC) regulators with letters. Recent Freedom ofInformation Act requests to the FCC have revealed that the PTC hasbeen responsible for over 98 percent of all indecency complaints tothe FCC over the past two years. PTC is quickly coming to have a"heckler's veto" over programming in America as many of the showsthey complain about receive significant fines or are even drivenoff the air.

While the PTC claims to be non-partisan, the watchdog group'spublic policy advocacy adopts a distinctly social conservative andmoralistic tone. Interestingly, the PTC's motto is: "Because OurChildren Are Watching," which begs the question: Why are yourchildren watching? Why are they watching DesperateHousewives or any other show you find objectionable? I know mykids aren't watching.

I've always been particularly troubled by the fact that so manyconservatives, who rightly preach the gospel of personal andparental responsibility about most economic issues, seemingly giveup on this notion when it comes to cultural issues. Art, music, andspeech are fair game for the Ministry of Culture down at the FCC,but don't let them regulate our cable rates! Conservatives andreligious groups decry government activism in terms of educatingour children, for example, but with their next breath call in UncleSam to play the role of surrogate parent when it comes to TVcontent.

Censorship advocates like the PTC respond that parents justdon't have enough time to monitor their children's listening andviewing habits in this hectic age. But this is a weak excuse forgovernment intervention. If parents bring media devices into thehome and then give their kids free rein, that's just poorparenting. While there's more media than ever before, there alsoexist more technological tools to screen or limit what childrensee. Parents don't bring other products home-such as cars, weapons,liquor, or various chemicals-and then expect the government toassume responsibility from there. But that is essentially the logicmany social conservatives rely on to justify broadcast televisionand radio censorship.

Censorship advocates also claim that any exposure to "indecent"or "violent" material will result in degenerate, dangerous youth.Increased exposure to media-and especially television-they argue,can be directly correlated with promiscuous sexual behavior oraggressive tendencies. The psychological literature is all over theplace on this issue, but recent social trends call this thesis intoquestion. Despite the fact that today's youngsters live in amedia-saturated would and consume much more news and entertainmentthan previous generations, important cultural indicators are allshowing significant signs of improvement. Consider these facts:

  • Juvenile murder, rape, robbery and assault are all downsignificantly over the past decade. Overall, aggregate violentcrime by juveniles fell 42% from 1995-2002.
  • There are fewer murders at school today and fewer studentsreport carrying weapons to school or anywhere else than at anypoint in the past decade.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse has generally been falling and iscurrently at a 20-year low. Teen birth rates have hit a 20-year lowand fewer teens are having sex today than they were 15 yearsago.
  • High school dropout rates continue to fall steadily, as theyhave for the past 30 years.
  • And while teenage suicide rates rose steadily until themid-1990s, they then began a dramatic decline that continuestoday.

Not surprisingly, you don't hear any of this good news over atthe PTC website or from other conservative groups. Could it bebecause it does not fit nicely into their"Let's-blame-media-for-all-our-problems" mentality? Socialconservative icon William Bennett used to publish a book entitled"The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators" that read like aguidebook to the fall of civilization. A new edition is nowhere tobe found, however. Bennett appears to have abandoned the endeavoras soon as all the numbers started to improve.

Alas, none of these facts will stop desperate regulators andeven more desperate censorship advocates from condemningDesperate Housewives and the fact that many youngsters areapparently watching such a racy show. Instead of rushing to fireoff complaints to the FCC, maybe parents should start rushing tothe remote to turn off the television.