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A Tea Party in the tube

Criticisms of broadcast television similar to those of politics

“I want my country back,” has become a frequent rallying cry among Tea Party protesters — the anti-government, anti-taxation political movement that has emerged in the U.S.

Their rhetoric and complaints, however, sound strangely familiar, mirroring increasingly futile attempts to arrest changes and recapture simpler times in television — an ongoing Tea Party on the tube.

In spirit and tone, these criticisms in the political arena sound very much like those leveled against network television by the Parents Television Council and other lobbying groups pushing back against a perceived erosion of broadcast standards — people determined, in essence, to take their television back.

For reasons that range from technology to demographics, both are likely at best to slow these tides, not divert them.

Undergirding the Tea Party argument — and in some respects the angry warnings of Fox News commentator Glenn Beck — is a sense that America’s way of life is under siege. The hunger is to turn back the clock, railing against forces changing the country’s profile as well as its media.

This powerful nostalgia for a family hearth and a return to “Bonanza” tends to ignore the difficulty squeezing a genie back into the bottle — of returning the country, or its TV, to the black-and-white days depicted in “Mad Men,” albeit without the crushing angst and wholesale unhappiness.

Within this contingent, the prevailing argument is that Hollywood “doesn’t get it.” The town’s licentious lifestyles and limousine liberalism are out of step with ordinary folks, while inundating society with (and thus exposing children to) wanton sexuality, foul language and sadistic violence.

There’s no question, of course, that networks and movies have become more permissive through the years. Yet there’s less evidence that most consumers vehemently object, given the considerable demand for Hollywood’s product in the U.S. and abroad. In that respect, the recent media-intermediated exchange of

volleys by Beck and James Cameron felt particularly instructive. In an intra-News Corp. squabble, the “Avatar” director labeled Beck a “madman,” while the Fox News host fired back that Cameron was humorless and “making a billion dollars off a Smurf-murdering movie.”

Both probably have a point, but “Avatar” does pose a rather conspicuous problem for Beck’s side of the equation. After all, the filmmaker’s liberal polemic about cherishing the environment and opposing colonialism ranks as the highest-grossing movie ever — topping even George Lucas’ recent “Star Wars” trilogy, which expressed similar disdain for an imperial, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy” mind-set. And while Hollywood is allegedly “out of touch,” far more people saw those films than watch “Glenn Beck.”

Even in what should be areas of potential agreement, the disconnection is tough to bridge. Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara, for example, recently cited “Glee” among a list of series reflecting a welcome resurgence of family-friendly programming. But Fox’s comedy-musical — with its acceptance of gays, teen sexuality (including the head of the “celibacy club”) and unflattering depiction of Christian parents — is precisely the kind of program that irritates the “family values” contingent to no end.

The irony is major broadcasters are in some respects every bit as nostalgic about the good ol’ days as their conservative critics. Given the choice, they’d love nothing more than retreating into the 1950s or ’60s, when the average home received a mere handful of channels and the Big Three networks commanded a 90 audience share virtually by default.

As businesses, though, broadcasters must accept that the world has evolved, with content available via hundreds of options, including the Internet and hand-held devices. Enforcing content restrictions on a few channels thus becomes an impotent process, leaving a porous web of warning labels, blocking devices and dutiful parents to shield children from material the watchdogs deem objectionable.

In either case, wishing and hoping isn’t enough to hold back the flood waters. Although history indicates that opponents can erect the occasional breakwater, it never holds for very long.

Like the Tea Partiers, those who campaign against TV can make their voices heard, but in private moments, they must recognize what their political counterparts are loath to admit — namely, there’s little use in crying over spilt tea.

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