LAST WEEK, BROADCASTERS, government reps and special-interest groups finally forged a new content code to label television shows that are potentially harmful to children.

To those sincere men and women who spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in pursuit of this goal, Reel Life has only two things to say: thank you, and please don’t do it again.

For centuries, well-intentioned people have declared wars in the name of religion. Nowadays, showbiz is the religion of the masses, and the devout are constantly declaring war on entertainment they consider harmful. Though their motives are sometimes suspect, the war cry of “impressionable youngsters” is always safe, and everyone is being beaten into submission by these new Children’s Crusades.

Aside from child-proof packaging and urinals that are far too close to the ground, there are numerous examples of things being altered to make it a Small Fry World: The cartoon Joe Camel has been banned from cigarette ads; D.C. this week debated a bill demanding a TV “Family Hour”; Las Vegas and Times Square are being pasteurized; Disney is being boycotted because Southern Baptists worry about children being exposed to positive-image homosexuals on “Ellen.”

These are in addition to the upcoming V-chip; the long-standing warning labels on records, films, trailers and even newspaper ads; and the habitual editing of words, images and scenes from films shown on broadcast webs and basic-cable nets.

All this is done in the name of Protecting Our Children, but who is going to protect them from children’s programming? Shows considered acceptable for general viewing include “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along” (with a senior-citizen in bib overalls dancing around and singing to puppets); the allegedly lovable Barney (though the purple dinosaur gets some bad press, the really horrifying thing about that show is all those little fat kids making enthusiastic faces while Barney speaks); “The Price is Right” and “Wheel of Fortune” (people shrieking about free gifts) and “Regis & Kathie Lee” (with Ms. Gifford, until recently, propagandizing about her perfect marriage and her perfect children).

Are these shows acceptable for youngsters? Where does the watchdogging stop? And if they ban Joe Camel, can Cal Worthington be far behind?

TYKES DON’T WANT TO be protected — nothing is as enticing as forbidden entertainment — and it’s not clear they need to be protected. Perhaps “harmful” TV fare is good for children, preparing them for the wicked realities of life.

Nobody worries about shielding the youth of Bosnia from violent programming — how can you presume to monitor their TV fare if they can see something worse on the street every day? But most American people get adamant about violent programming here because they don’t want to admit that life in the U.S. can be cruel, random and vicious. They want to protect children from things they themselves have experienced.

Baby-boomers grew up watching “Gunsmoke” every week, in which Matt Dillon killed someone during the opening credits. And yet, somehow, we survived: Despite having watched endless shootings in hundreds of westerns, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve shot and killed in my adult life.

As kids, most of us watched “I Love Lucy,” about an oppressive husband and a deceitful wife; “The Honeymooners,” an emotionally S&M relationship if ever there was one; and “I Dream of Jeannie,” in which a woman does a man’s bidding and calls him “Master.” Every family sitcom from “Father Knows Best” to “The Brady Bunch” conveyed the message that any problem can be solved within a half-hour. Why is no one protesting the content of these shows?

AND WHO IS GOING TO protect the impressionable minds of us adults? Who is going to shield us from those Carl’s Jr. commercials (with those people slobbering ketchup all over the place) or from future “Batman” movies or from Jonathan Taylor Thomas?

To hell with the little nippers. I want adult entertainment and I want it now. But “adult entertainment” has become a euphemism for porno, since this summer’s movies will attest that Hollywood no longer is making anything purely for adults.

It’s a difficult world to live in, and perhaps we do need a system of rating content. However, Reel Life has a few revisions for the letter codes:

V — Vapid

S — Sugary

L — Lowest common denominator

D — Inane Dialogue

FV — Fantasy Values

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