Of Desperate Housewives and Desperate Regulators

January 5, 2005 • TechKnowledge No. 94

Get ready for another impassioned censorship crusade by the “let’s-censor-television-to-protect-the-children” crowd. The latest Nielsen television ratings are out and they reveal that in addition to being the most popular show among adults, ABC’s smash‐​hit Desperate Housewives is also the most popular broadcast‐​network television show with kids aged 9–12.

No doubt, the relentless censorship advocates at the Parents Television Council (PTC) are already firing up the engines at their automated complaint factory to bombard Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulators with letters. Recent Freedom of Information Act requests to the FCC have revealed that the PTC has been responsible for over 98 percent of all indecency complaints to the FCC over the past two years. PTC is quickly coming to have a “heckler’s veto” over programming in America as many of the shows they complain about receive significant fines or are even driven off the air.

While the PTC claims to be non‐​partisan, the watchdog group’s public policy advocacy adopts a distinctly social conservative and moralistic tone. Interestingly, the PTC’s motto is: “Because Our Children Are Watching,” which begs the question: Why are your children watching? Why are they watching Desperate Housewives or any other show you find objectionable? I know my kids aren’t watching.

I’ve always been particularly troubled by the fact that so many conservatives, who rightly preach the gospel of personal and parental responsibility about most economic issues, seemingly give up on this notion when it comes to cultural issues. Art, music, and speech are fair game for the Ministry of Culture down at the FCC, but don’t let them regulate our cable rates! Conservatives and religious groups decry government activism in terms of educating our children, for example, but with their next breath call in Uncle Sam to play the role of surrogate parent when it comes to TV content.

Censorship advocates like the PTC respond that parents just don’t have enough time to monitor their children’s listening and viewing habits in this hectic age. But this is a weak excuse for government intervention. If parents bring media devices into the home and then give their kids free rein, that’s just poor parenting. While there’s more media than ever before, there also exist more technological tools to screen or limit what children see. Parents don’t bring other products home‐​such as cars, weapons, liquor, or various chemicals‐​and then expect the government to assume responsibility from there. But that is essentially the logic many social conservatives rely on to justify broadcast television and 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 or aggressive tendencies. The psychological literature is all over the place on this issue, but recent social trends call this thesis into question. Despite the fact that today’s youngsters live in a media‐​saturated would and consume much more news and entertainment than previous generations, important cultural indicators are all showing significant signs of improvement. Consider these facts:

  • Juvenile murder, rape, robbery and assault are all down significantly over the past decade. Overall, aggregate violent crime by juveniles fell 42% from 1995–2002.
  • There are fewer murders at school today and fewer students report carrying weapons to school or anywhere else than at any point in the past decade.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse has generally been falling and is currently at a 20‐​year low. Teen birth rates have hit a 20‐​year low and fewer teens are having sex today than they were 15 years ago.
  • High school dropout rates continue to fall steadily, as they have for the past 30 years.
  • And while teenage suicide rates rose steadily until the mid‐​1990s, they then began a dramatic decline that continues today.

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

Alas, none of these facts will stop desperate regulators and even more desperate censorship advocates from condemning Desperate Housewives and the fact that many youngsters are apparently watching such a racy show. Instead of rushing to fire off complaints to the FCC, maybe parents should start rushing to the remote to turn off the television.

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