George Carlin did a great routine about parents’ stupid rules and children’s unspoken answers. “No running in the halls,” for example, prompted kids to think, “Where we gonna run? In the rooms? You have to keep turning!”Well, to paraphrase Carlin, self-appointed watchdogs want indecency expunged from the airwaves? So what are we adults supposed to watch? Because trust me, if the options include “Teletubbies,” we’ll have to keep turning. This realization crystallized when my Parents Television Council newsletter arrived, containing its much-anticipated list of primetime programs that have earned the coveted “2004 Seal of Approval.” “Finally,” I thought, “wholesome programming that I and fellow decent citizens can watch, after accidentally viewing all that smut and filth. Just in time, too, before my fascination with HBO’s ‘Deadwood’ grows any deeper and I uncontrollably begin to use ‘cocksucker’ as the verbal equivalent of a comma.” Yet as I began scanning the “for all ages” list, something seemed amiss. “The Wonderful World of Disney” and “7th Heaven” were logical choices, but three of the anointed series air on Pax, a network that gets less attention than Richard Clarke did while employed by the Bush administration. The comedies didn’t provide any additional reassurance. First-year entries included the little-seen “Married to the Kellys” and “The Tracy Morgan Show,” which generated one laugh between them, when a daffy uncle in the former announces that he’s taking an after-dinner “fart walk.” Salvation, I decided, must reside on the supplemental roster deemed suitable for “teens and older,” but alas, that left me even more confused. For while the dramas “Joan of Arcadia” and “American Dreams” made sense, I couldn’t fathom featuring “JAG” and the defunct “Threat Matrix” except for their unabashed patriotism, and the sitcoms included the cringe-worthy “Life With Bonnie.” “The Amazing Race” also appeared, which describes how a lot of adults would react if presented a steady diet of kid-friendly programs. Sitting through the new Olsen twins movie, I couldn’t help but think that such material should come with a warning, something like, “No adults should be sober in the viewing of this film.” Let’s face it, the brouhaha over broadcast indecency hasn’t left anyone looking particularly good. Entertainment moguls cowered when government came knocking, feigning a sudden epiphany that plenty of what they broadcast is hard-to-defend dreck. Moreover, thanks to the emphasis on reaching young adults, scant commitment has been made to family fare — perhaps the hardest genre to get right. Government officials, meanwhile, come across as opportunists, speaking for a constituency that isn’t nearly as galvanized as these standard-bearers would have us believe. The same goes for media allies, which incongruously include the business-friendly Wall Street Journal. In a recent editorial, the paper opined that the public “has had it” with our coarsened airwaves, adding, “Unless you’re thinking of sending your child to a convent school at the edge of a Spanish desert, there’s no way to turn off the culture.” Granted, Howard Stern’s shtick is frequently tasteless, as are “Fear Factor” and “Big Brother.” That said, does anyone really think an accomplished populist like Stern is less in touch with cultural tastes than the Journal’s pinky-waving editorial board? The most grating voice, though, belongs to the indecency police, who should admit they’re more interested in eradicating that to which they object than promoting the kind of shows they insist they want. The PTC — run by the ubiquitous L. Brent Bozell III, whose idea of elevated discourse includes labeling Margaret Cho a “potty-mouthed bisexual comic” — has long agitated to clean up primetime. For all the rhetoric about kids, however, the agenda most of these groups espouse is almost invariably negative, rooted in a pre-cable-TV landscape. Much as the PTC and its ilk wish to evoke gauzy images from the past, barring rare exceptions like “American Idol,” the nostalgic ideal of parents and kids surrounding a communal hearth is no longer the way we consume media. Indeed, a staggering 60% of kids age 8 to 17 have a TV in their bedrooms, according to a Knowledge Networks/SRI survey released last fall. As for the PTC’s “Seal of Approval,” what’s perhaps most striking is the number of worthwhile series left off. Where, for example, are “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Simpsons” and “Frasier,” shows that highlight the vagaries of family life in often-brilliant ways? What about the WB’s “Everwood,” which has tackled serious issues, including abortion and teenage sex? While I can understand the PTC’s aversion to crime dramas, where’s “The West Wing” (not that anyone under 35 is watching it)? For that matter, what words could more mature teenagers hear that they haven’t already on “NYPD Blue” — a program that captures the heroic sacrifices police officers make, and the toll the job exacts on their humanity. Television churns out plenty of shame-worthy detritus, and there’s nothing wrong with critics — whether in newspapers or through grass-roots channels — flagging its excesses, taking their case to viewers and pressuring sponsors. Yet straining all of television through a simplistic filter (one that overlooks the vast assortment of kid-oriented fare on cable, by the way) produces sound bytes more than productive debate. Any reasonable discussion of indecency is incomplete without addressing alternatives, as well as the public’s hypocrisy in failing to patronize family dramas. Because the fact remains that most family shows fail, inviting a lazy retreat to “edgy” programming to fill the void. Decrying indecency, then, will achieve little without promoting alternatives that can prove their viability in the commercial marketplace. This is a longstanding challenge for the industry, since top-notch family productions (the under-seen film “A Little Princess” comes to mind) are perhaps the most difficult high-wire act to master and market. Self-appointed critics contend that they’re eager to support those who toe that line, but listening to them, I’m not so sure. It’s hard to applaud, after all, when your hands are occupied holding your nose and wagging fingers.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more