Bottling up media is a fruitless agenda

Comedians have the luxury of being able to speak the truth, or at least come closer to it than politicians. So the juxtaposition of George Carlin’s latest HBO stand-up special and Hillary Clinton’s desperate bid to save her presidential aspirations were illustrative.

Carlin’s spec generated strong applause when he spoke of over-eager, controlling parents before telling the audience, “Let me tell you something, folks: Nobody cares about your children. … That’s why they’re your children.”

No candidate could admit as much, but Carlin is onto something, especially when it comes to communications policy. Because whatever quaint notions we might cling to about television’s family hour and shielding kids from inappropriate content, imposing blanket decisions about what’s best for “the children” is no longer feasible in a media landscape as diverse and unruly as the one that exists.

The good news is that children have plenty of channels specifically dedicated to them, from Disney Channel catering to “tweens,” a whole new made-up category; to PBS and those directed at preschoolers. As for the spectrum where adults gather, well, it’s no country for young kids.

This reality hasn’t sunk in among do-gooders, moral scolds and politicians on the left or right. Indeed, Clinton — she of the “It Takes a Village” school of child rearing — is banging the same old drum, seeking to scare potential voters with a TV ad depicting cherubic young kids tucked in bed. “It’s 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep,” the narrator says ominously. “But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing. … Who do you want answering the phone?”

Various groups and officials — including the Federal Communications Commission — seem equally enamored with somehow legislating the U.S. back to the Cold War era. And because “protecting children” is a position with no “con” argument, no one has the heart or incentive to inform them that bottling up media is a fruitless agenda.

In the 1990s, the major networks saw the audience fragmentation writing on the wall and stopped worrying about programming to kids. Racy sitcoms (“Friends”) and eventually grisly dramas (“Prison Break”) migrated into the 8 o’clock hour, as execs recognized that children were watching Nickelodeon anyway and that broadcasters’ advertising booty hinged exclusively on gathering young-adult eyeballs.

Seldom mentioned, too, is that parents of minor children represent a relatively small part of the population. As the group TV Watch notes, less than a third of the U.S.’ 110 million households have minors residing in them. Moreover, media priorities change depending on whether kids are 12 and up (9 million of those homes), age 6-11 (11 million) or 5 and under (15 million).

Issues facing parents concerned about TV’s polluting influence are generally not shared by childless adults — from empty nesters who have already raised their children to adults that don’t have kids. Nor are parents a monolithic bloc, with subsets that include some who can’t be bothered to police their kids’ viewing and those who diligently monitor children’s media consumption even as they happily support R-rated movies and the porn industry (featuring other people’s kids) once their own little angels are asleep.

Surrogate parenting for others, of course, is a goal would-be censors don’t articulate — fretting not only about corrosive material to which advocates’ own children might be exposed but the crappy job the rest of us are doing raising our kids, who will then shoot up their kid’s school. Watch too much TV news, ironically enough, and such fears begin to seem less irrational.

Anybody who has tracked media through its history, though, can testify to one inexorable fact: Culture never moves backward. Standards shift and taboos fall, frequently provoking howls of protest. Once released, however, the genie can’t be squeezed back into the bottle, which is especially true now given the explosion of channels and screens — including those on desktops and hand-held devices — at the consumer’s disposal.

Everyone knows the right-sounding, polite response should a pollster ask — that we care about what children see. Still, if pressed into honesty, Carlin’s observation likely applies — one that goes something like, “Best of luck raising your kids … just don’t interfere with what I like to watch or download while you’re doing it.”

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