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More Sleaze on TV

The new television season is upon us and, alas, the producers of much of this junk still don't get it.

A recent poll shows that 84 percent of American parents are concerned about violence on TV. President Clinton says that he wants the industry to uphold traditional family values. Bob Dole says values are under assault because of the violence and sex on TV.

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So what's the industry's response? To give us another dose of horror and crudity that may break the all-time record for offensiveness.

US News and World Report, rating 34 new TV series, finds only five suitable for all ages. Twenty-six of the 34, in the magazine's view, require a decision by parents before children under 12 should see them. Some contain "strong violence, gunplay, blood, dead bodies, rampant vulgar language, strong profanities, children victimized," and more.

In their most cynical moments, TV producers say they are only reflecting social reality, not creating it. Yet in my town, the mayor doesn't get a nail punched through his palm, nor has anyone been buried alive. Both are scenes from a few of this fall's new shows.

As to whether this kind of TV drama encourages copy-cat behavior, its originators say no. Yet if that's true, why do advertisers spend billions of dollars on TV ads, confident that what viewers see on the screen influences their behavior and buying habits?

In a poll earlier this year, US News found that two-thirds of the public think TV shows have a negative impact on the country. A majority believes "TV contributes to problems like violence, divorce, teen pregnancy, and the decline of family values."

The theory will soon be put to the test. Some 40 million children are about to become teenagers, the biggest group of adolescents in a generation. Experts such as John J. Dilulio Jr., professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, say that while overall crime rates are going down moderately, we're about to see a sharp increase in the number of crime-prone young males. In the Weekly Standard, Mr. Dilulio describes this as the "coming of the super-predators." He reasons that in a decade, today's four-to- seven-year-olds will become 14-to-17-year-olds. By 2005, the number of males in this age group will have risen about 25 percent - and 50 percent for blacks. That's an audience TV producers should be thinking about.

There's hope that this season's collection of sleaze is the TV industry's last gasp before new measures curb its excesses. Prodded by the White House and Congress, TV executives have agreed to introduce a labeling system next year that will flag objectionable material. The following year, new TV sets will include a V-chip to enable parents to block objectionable material. Millions of sets, however, will be left without the V-chip, and such labeling won't stop the TV industry from actually making violent programs and the children of inattentive parents from viewing them.

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As we look to solutions beyond government intervention, a thought: If the TV industry doesn't stop making shows that degrade the moral values of our youth, then parents must do a better job of policing what their children watch.

Another thought: Boycotts of companies that advertise on offensive shows have been effective in removing their sponsorship. And yet another: What about government encouragement for more creative alternative children's programming on TV?

Finally, there's the church. A study in the journal Criminology in 1995 found that religion serves "as an insulator against crime and delinquency." Churchgoing youths are less apt than nonchurchgoers to commit crimes.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is director of the International Media Studies Program at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

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