TV scolds use children as red herring to promote agenda

For those fretting about children being exposed to “The Following,” here’s a reassuring note: More than 99% of tykes under 12 managed to miss the U.S. premiere.

Which, undoubtedly, won’t end the debate or hand-wringing about the show, especially with the overall numbers holding up for its second week.

There’s no denying the new Fox series — about an FBI agent summoned out of retirement to thwart a serial killer and his messianic followers — is grim, nasty stuff that most people would deem inappropriate for the “SpongeBob SquarePants” demo. The program has drawn condemnations from groups like the Parents Television Council and Movieguide — whose publisher, Ted Baehr, is chair of the Christian Film & Television Commission — which called the show “a new low for television.”

Actually, such hyperbole merely suggests marginal familiarity with TV, which has limboed lower on plenty of occasions.

But does the “What about the children?” argument hold any weight if kids by and large don’t watch? A deeper dive into “The Following’s” ratings underscores why it’s so difficult to conduct an intelligent conversation about violence and media in this polarized, digitally distributed age.

Now, the 0.9% of kids who viewed “The Following” in its first three days, per Nielsen research, accounted for a mere 2.5% of the more than 13 million people who sampled the program.

That translates to 339,000 kids — a paltry number based on population but not a wholly insignificant one. Such are the problems with a great big country.

Those who chose to let kids watch (or didn’t supervise them well enough to prevent it) shouldn’t be eligible for any parenting awards. Yet assuming the vast majority of adults consumed the show responsibly — that is, without kids — should they or Fox be penalized because of the few who can’t read a viewer-discretion advisory?

Too often, advocacy groups use children as a red herring, hiding behind small fry in an effort to curb material they find objectionable. By contrast, the “I Like Shows With Serial Killers” lobby — while clearly quite large — isn’t organized, lacking its own letterhead and publicist. (Just wait till the scolds get a gander at an upcoming “Following” episode that involves — gasp — gay sex, which invariably tends to upset them far more than violence.)

Still, broadcasting these shows doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Fox’s marketing campaign capitalized on the network’s NFL playoffs coverage, and while those spots certainly didn’t contain the toughest moments, they did convey the show’s dark tone and present it to an audience far larger than the one that ultimately tuned in.

The issue grows more complex when contemplating a more pressing aspect of the current violence equation: guns, and the harm alienated loners can cause with them.

Setting kids aside, should we be concerned about alienated loners — especially men age 18 to 34 — watching “The Following” alone? Perhaps, but they don’t particularly scare me if armed with nothing more than a butter knife. And if seeking to curtail what adults watch sounds like the slipperiest of slopes, remember, gun-rights advocates employ similar logic to repel any attempt to rein in Second Amendment rights, insisting it’s only a disturbed few who abuse them.

Any discussion of these issues, ultimately, winds up frittering around the periphery. Viewed that way, it’s hard make a convincing case for infantilizing all of media because a tiny minority allows children to see questionable material.

Our overheated, media-saturated times also make it easy to lose perspective. For example, friends recently mentioned their teenager is hooked on FX’s “American Horror Story.” This initially horrified me given the program’s nihilism and torture-porn riffs before realizing I doubtless watched much grislier stuff as a teen. And my deepest psychopathology is an unhealthy knowledge of “Star Wars” trivia.

The late comic George Carlin’s mock headlines routine included this gem: “A man has barricaded himself inside of his house; however, he is not armed, and nobody is paying any attention to him.”

If the political goal is to garner attention, invoking children as a cudgel against pop culture makes perfect sense. But like that poor unarmed slob barricaded in his room, it’s not really news.

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