The lawmakers _ Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan.,
and Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Joe Kennedy, D-Mass. _ are pushing legislation
to require that early-evening television programs be free of sexual innuendo,
deletable expletives or sly euphemisms for crude language.
But a deal that other lawmakers made with the TV industry may prevent the
bills from going anywhere.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the
Commerce Committee chairman, and seven other senators promised industry
leaders they would oppose, among other things, legislation aimed at creating
a ``family viewing hour.'' The assurance, similar to ones made by key House
members, was in exchange for the industry's agreement to adopt stronger
voluntary program ratings.
That agreement bodes ill for the new ``family viewing'' proposals, which
would grant television networks a limited exemption from antitrust laws
and allow them together to reinstate and develop voluntary programming standards.
Sponsors want to encourage production again of safe shows like ``Happy Days''
and ``Little House on the Prairie.''
But what constitutes safe ``family friendly'' programs and who decides?
In the early 1970s, ``All in the Family'' featured Carroll O'Connor as the
politically incorrect Archie Bunker. It sparked a national uproar over what
language and topics were appropriate for prime-time television, but the
program was tame by today's standards.
Sponsors of the bills insist they would give government no control over
broadcasters. ``Any guidelines or programming standards the industry chose
to adopt would be purely voluntary and could not be enforced by the government
in any way,'' Brownback said.
Groups that want to clean up TV programming like the ``family hour'' bills.
``We wholeheartedly support the bill because ... it allows the networks
to do something to clean up the content of programming,'' said Mark Honig,
executive director of the conservative Parents Television Council.
``It doesn't mandate or legislate anything from Capitol Hill but actually
puts the burden on the industry to resolve this problem.''
The industry is not impressed. It thinks the bills violate broadcasters'
``We cannot support the bills because of the First Amendment implications
and the fact that we've been there before,'' said Dennis Wharton, spokesman
for the National Association of Broadcasters. ``Essentially, the family
viewing hour was dropped because of the antitrust and the First Amendment
implications back in the late 1970s.''
Television networks followed a self-imposed set of standards until a federal
court ruled in 1982 that provisions restricting sale of advertising violated
antitrust rules. The broadcasters' group threw out the entire code in January
1983 on the ground that it made broadcasters vulnerable to antitrust lawsuits.
Since the demise of the broadcasters' code, some conservative groups say,
the time slot once known as ``family hour'' has turned into the cringe hour.
Despite the popularity of mild-mannered, family-friendly shows like ``Touched
by an Angel,'' today's children are deluged between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. by
``filthy language, sexual innuendo and perverse story lines,'' the Parents
Television Council and the conservative Media Research Center said in a
study released in May.
It examined 93 hours of programs from Jan. 30 to Feb. 26. Obscenities were
uttered at an average rate of just under one an hour, and there were 60
references to sexual intercourse _ one every 11/2 hours.
``In their race to the bottom of the entertainment barrel, the networks,
I think, are in a situation where they believe perhaps that sex and violence
sells, which I think is a misreading of the American people,'' Rep. Smith
Elliot Mincberg, legal director of the People for the American Way, a liberal
group Norman Lear helped found to counter the religious right, said he sees
nothing wrong with a new ``family hour'' policy so long as it is truly voluntary.
But he cautioned:
``What's family viewing today may be very different from what family viewing
was yesterday. Today, my guess is that `All in the Family' would be considered
family viewing, even though that was one of the specific targets of the
family viewing hour 20 years ago.''