WASHINGTON — Beltway culture-cleansers won a powerful new ally Thursday when House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) announced that he supported efforts to pressure the webs into setting aside one hour of primetime for programming free from sex or violence.
By adding his name to the family-hour crusade, Gingrich shocked industry lobbyists, who already have a siege mentality.
“(Gingrich) has raw unbridled power and he can make something happen if he wants to,” said one industry lobbyist, adding, “Obviously when the speaker of the house does something like this, you have to take it seriously.”
Gingrich did not act alone. All six network programming presidents, including ABC’s Jamie Tarses, CBS’ Leslie Moonves and NBC’s Warren Littlefield, will soon be deluged with letters signed by more than 100 members of Congress, urging them to “create a safe haven for the family viewing audience.”
Gingrich’s entry into the fray is the latest indication that the new content rating system is a political failure that has not, as many had hoped, placated congressional television critics. Gingrich’s announcement may also step up pressure to rewrite the age-based content code, as critics are demanding, so that it provides more specific information about the sexual and violent content of individual shows.
Network lobbyists argued that Gingrich’s letter to the web honchos runs against the grain of the conservative political ethic. “This flies in the face of the credo of the majority party that has called for personal responsibility and limited government,” said ABC’s Bill Pitts, VP government affairs.
Before joining ABC, Pitts spent 25 year on Capitol Hill working for the Republican leadership. At least 68 of the approximately 100 members of Congress who signed the family hour mail-in effort are Republican.
Pitts and others worried that Gingrich’s endorsement of the family hour may create an unbeatable alliance between liberals such as Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and conservative stalwarts.
The form letters are signed on the stationery of conservative watchdog group Parents Television Council. The PTC also took out a full-page ad in today’s Daily Variety. “As members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives, we urge you … to recognize the pernicious effects of this programming on our children and voluntarily return to the spirit of the “family hour,” reads the letter, which claims the 8-9 p.m. hour has “disintegrated to the point” where it features “sitcoms and dramas promoting promiscuity and obscene language.”
The letter refers nostalgically to an era when the family hour featured shows such as “Happy Days,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Cosby Show.” The family hour was a voluntary effort by the networks to respond to congressional criticism at the time. It was abandoned in the early 1980s after producers and the Writers Guild of America challenged the programming policy in court, claiming the networks were violating the First Amendment. Although a federal court eventually upheld the family hour, it was abandoned after the webs lost the first round in the courts.
Gingrich’s announcement coincided with the release of a Parents Television Council study of programming on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, the WB and UPN between 8 and 9 p.m. from Jan. 30 to Feb. 26.
During that period, according to the researchers, “ass” was used 29 times, “bastard” was used 13, followed by “various euphemistic and bleeped” forms of “fuck,” which the report refers to as the “f-word.”
The report also breaks down the use of obscenities by network, with Fox leading the way as “easily the most foul-mouthed network” at a rate of 2.6 obscenities per hour. NBC was a distant second, with an obscenity-per-hour rate of .91.
The study also noted 60 references to sexual intercourse, with combined network tally of .65 per hour. Researchers noted that “32 of the references were to premarital sex; 12 were to marital sex; 11 to extramarital sex.” The study conceded that in five instances, marital status was unclear. But overall, the ratio of references to sex inside of marriage to sex outside of marriage was 3.6 to 1, a dramatic improvement over last year when the ratio was 8 to 1. Fox, according to the report, is the “most sexually obsessed” network.